EVM Hackathon: ‘Congress-Sponsored’ Drama?

Published : Jan 27, 2019 09:25 am | By: M D Sridharan

The much publicised press conference in London by a so called “cyber expert” ended up as a lacklustre show of wild conspiracy theories coupled with bizarre claims without an iota of evidence to back those claims.

It is not new in India for the political parties to raise allegations of rigging the Electronic Voting Machines (EVMs), especially whenever they lose. The fact remains that the EVMs have always been the bone of contention between winning and losing side. Though the Indian elections have seen several accusations of rigging by the political parties on the ruling party after the results were announced, this time it has created a flutter as it has surfaced even before the elections.       

Now, a self-proclaimed cyber expert named Syed Shuja, has gone one step further. Addressing a press conference via Skype, at an event organized by the Indian Journalists' Association in London, he made bizarre claims that the electronic voting machines were "rigged" by Bharatiya Janata Party during the 2014 Lok Sabha polls.

As expected the BJP reacted strongly to the allegations and summarily rejected the claims. While BJP slammed Congress and said it was a Congress-sponsored drama because the grand-old party knew it was going to lose the upcoming parliamentary elections. Interestingly, Congress leader Kapil Sibal had attended the press conference in London where claims were made that every election in India since 2014 was rigged.

Union Minister for Law and Justice Ravi Shankar Prasad questioned,  “In what capacity was Kapil Sibal present at the EVM Hackathon event? Was he there to monitor the press conference on behalf of Congress?  Is the Congress-sponsored event designed to defame the popular mandate of India?”

Faced with lot of criticism from all quarters, Congress leader Kapil Sibal said that he was present at the event, as the Indian Journalists’ Association London President Ashish Ray has sent him the invitation and also insisted that he should attend as they are going to make an important revelation.

Ravi Shankar Prasad not only rubbished the London EVM hack drama but also accused Ashish Ray that the man who organised the explosive event in London was a dedicated Congressman. He said that he has ties with Rahul Gandhi and National Herald and used to contribute in National Herald . Further, Ravi Shankar Prasad  pointed out that the UPA was in power when the 2014 election took place and that critics of EVMs like Mayawati of the Bahujan Samaj Party -- have won elections featuring them.

On the other hand the Election Commission of India not only strongly refuted the hacking claims of the so called cyber expert but also stood "firmly" behind the "empirical facts about foolproof nature of ECI EVMs deployed in elections in India". It said it was "wary of becoming  party to this motivated slugfest"

Interestingly some of the prominent leaders of the “Mahagathbhandan” also used it as an opportunity to attack the BJP.  Samajwadi Party chief Akhilesh Yadav said, “If someone has raised a question then it must be analysed . He also said that even a developed country like Japan is not using EVMs. It is not a question of a political party; it's a question of trust in democracy.”  National Conference leader Farooq Abdullah called the EVM the "chor machine" and demanded that the ballot paper system be brought back for the sake of transparency.  Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister Chandrababu Naidu said  that the EVMs have turned out to be a big threat to the democracy and demanded that the Election Commission  to seek opinion of all political parties to revert to Ballot paper system.

Indeed Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar strongly advocated the use of EVMs and said, “EVM is perfectly fine and I don't agree with the things that are being said related to EVM. EVM has strengthened people's right to vote.  BJP leader G Kishan Reddy went one step further and took a jibe at the opposition leaders by saying that if he could tamper with EVM then he would have become Telangana Chief Minister by now.

Bizarre Claims

The European chapter of the Indian Journalists' Association organised a press conference in London, to demonstrate EVMs used by ECI can be tampered with.  Syed Shuja addressed via Skype, with his face masked,   made a number of bizarre claims.

His myriad allegations and the timing of the press conference do raise lot of suspicion as the 2019 Lok Sabha polls are just around the corner. While, the allegation that EVMs can definitely be hacked gives Opposition parties fodder to target the BJP, the presence of Kapil Sibal in the press conference questions the role of Congress in the whole episode.

Shuja said   that he is seeking political asylum in the US. Shuja, however, did not provide any proof to back up his claim. He said he fled India in 2014 because he felt threatened in the country after he and his team discovered the rigging.   He claimed to have been injured when he and his team were shot at in Hyderabad in which the members of his team had died, but the authorities had covered up the whole incident in the garb of a "communal incident".

Shuja asserted that the 2014 Lok Sabha elections had been rigged from the beginning in which the BJP had won 282 seats out of 543 and said that the BJP had hacked the EVMs using a modulator that transmitted a "military-grade frequency".

On EVM tampering, Shuja said the manipulation was not restricted to just the 2014 General Election. He claimed that he and his team had intercepted "signals" emanating from the EVMs used in the 2015 Delhi elections, and that the BJP would have won the polls had they not done this. The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) won 67 of the 70 Assembly seats in that election. He also claimed that the BJP would have swept the recent Assembly elections in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh had his team not "intercepted the signals" coming from the machines. The saffron party lost the three Hindi heartland states to the Congress amid several reports of EVM tampering or malfunctioning.

The most startling among the cyber security researcher's claims were that BJP leader Gopinath Munde, who died in a car accident in 2014, had been killed because he knew about the rigging, and that journalist Gauri Lankesh, too, was murdered as she had agreed to run a story on the EVM hacking after he approached her.

The self-proclaimed cyber expert did not stop at merely stating that Munde was murdered for being privy to incriminating information. Shuja added that Tanzil Ahmed, the officer of the National Investigating Agency who had been looking into Munde's case, had decided to file an FIR noting that it was not an accident and that the BJP leader had been murdered, but he was shot dead before he could file the report.

Claiming that he had been part of the team that had made the EVMs used in the 2014 polls, he said he could demonstrate how the voting machines could be hacked. On his claims that he had worked with Electronics Corporation of India Limited (ECIL) from 2009 to 2014, ECIL confirmed that no such employee was on their roles.

Contrary to the statements of the Election Commission of India that the EVMs are being manufactured under "very strict" supervisory and security conditions, Shuja claimed that in April 2014, he and his team realised that "signals were being emitted" from the machines used in the general elections, after ECIL had instructed them to look into whether EVMs could be hacked and if yes, how.

A research paper published in July 2014 and titled 'India's Electronic Voting Machines (EVMs): Social construction of a "frugal" innovation' authored by Maximilian Herstatt and Cornelius Herstat, noted, "EVMs in India are unique and quite different from EVMs employed in other nations like the US. Rather than large, expensive, complex and computer like systems the Indian machine is praised for its simplicity, inexpensiveness, and efficiency. The Election Commission of India is very proud of the system and stated that the machines are perfect and tamperproof.

EC Lodges police complaint

The Election Commission has lodged a police complaint against Syed Shuja for his notorious allegations under Sections of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) pertaining to "public mischief".

"Through media reports, it has come to the notice of the Commission that one Syed Shuja, on January 21 in London, claimed that he was part of the EVM design team and he can hack the EVM used in elections in India. The act of Shuja is violative of IPC, particularly Section 505(1)(b).  Accordingly, you are requested to lodge an FIR and investigate the matter promptly for violation of aforesaid Section of IPC and other related provisions of any law",  the letter to the Deputy Commissioner of Police, New Delhi,  read.

Also, ECIL Chairman and MD Sanjay Chaubey informed the Election Commission in a letter that “The records of this company have been verified and it is found that Syed Shuja has neither been in the rolls of ECIL as a regular employee nor was he in any way associated in the design and development of EVMs in ECIL produced between 2009 to 2014,"  

EVMs to Stay

A closer scrutiny at the whole episode reveals that though advertised as an EVM Hackathon,  the much publicised press conference in London by a so called  “cyber expert” ended  up as a lacklustre show of  wild conspiracy theories coupled with bizarre claims  without an iota of evidence to back those claims.

In fact, the Election Commission  panel did call for an EVM challenge in June 2017 after the controversy over their alleged hacking gained ground following the Uttar Pradesh elections. The Election Commission had invited seven recognised national parties and 49 state parties to participate in the EVM challenge, but only two parties had turned up.

The team of IT experts of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) had emerged satisfied after the poll panel's demonstration, but the National Congress Party — the only other outfit to participate in the challenge — was displeased that they were not allowed access to the machines being used. AAP, which was the loudest at that time with its EVM tampering allegations, had refused to participate, calling it a false exercise.

Ever since, the Election Commission started using the EVMs, it  has often asserted  that EVMs are not manufactured for wireless communication. So, the  logic of some potential “hacker” can operate without  having any physical contact with the machines are summarily ruled out. More importantly, the code has been developed in such a way that the total votes for each of the contestants adds up the votes registered on a machine, is burnt into the chip. The device is “one time programmable”, which means this burning of code into the chip can only be done once per EVM. It is not the model where software is downloaded separately and installed and later upgraded.

This sums up the fact that the hacker must have to physically open the machine or machines to change original features . Considering the amount of precautions taken by the Election Commission before the EVMs are taken  to the booths and the heavy security deployed to the EVMs once the polling is over till the counting starts,  it practically rules out the possibility of hacking. 

In this regard, one may ask whether the parties alleging EVM rigging really believed that the machines were being manipulated, or whether it was indeed a "motivated slugfest", as the poll panel described the controversy.

The irony is that because of several complaints of rigging in the past by various parties, the Ballot paper system was discarded .Though, some political parties have suggested going back to using paper ballots, it is not the solution to end the allegations on using EVMs. Not only is it uneconomic and environmentally unfriendly, it is a cumbersome job for polling officers to count the ballots. Certainly returning to paper ballots will be chaotic.

Amid renewed demands against the use of EVMs, Chief Election Commissioner Sunil Arora asserted that the Election Commission is not going back to ballot papers. EVMs are being used as a "football" due to a "motivated slugfest", he said. "I would like to make it very, very clear one more time that we are not going back to the era of ballot papers," Arora said.

Moreover, those questioning EVMs today will doubt paper ballots also tomorrow. By questioning the sanctity of electoral processes, India’s squabbling politicians are hurting national interest and putting democracy itself in danger. Though subjected to  scrutiny time and again, the  Election Commission remains one of India’s most trusted institutions.  It really amounts to sacrilege if accusations are made without due diligence.

It is true that the London EVM Hackathon episode  has  added fuel to the EVM fire as the  political blame game has already begun with the both BJP and Congress  accusing each other and is unlikely to end till the Lok Sabha elections. Further, if  a party like Congress with national presence  is seen to associate itself with such frivolous accusations, it will not do any good for its own credibility.

But since the Election Commission is clear about the using EVMs and also  very proud of the system in place and stated that the machines are perfect and tamperproof, the EVMs are likely to stay.  




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