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Online polling is an idea whose time has come, provided politicians play ball

Voting on web
Protagonists of electoral reforms in India, mull on this one. The well-hyped Digital India, one of this government’s ambitious programmes to put the country further up on the internet map, could reach a logical conclusion when the world’s largest democracy begins to vote online to elect its national and state legislators.

It is a thought that is as tempting in imagination as it is daunting in its execution. Can India elect its peoples’ representatives online? A significant section of Indians, particularly those who are digitally savvy and upwardly mobile, say it would add a feather to India’s cap. After all, if all kinds of financial transactions can be done online, from groceries to home appliances, from cars to homes bought and sold online, why can’t polling be done the same way? On the face of it, it seems logical.

Adding grist to the online mill is a recent remark by the chief election commissioner, which said that the Election Commission (EC) is contemplating the idea of using web and mobile-based technology to allow citizens to cast their vote in local and national elections. Well, that’s pretty much coming from the horse’s mouth.

At a micro level, online voting in India has seen the light of the day. The Computer Society of India and many public limited companies are using the net to allow members and shareholders to vote by logging into websites. The challenge is to ensure that only authorised voters are allowed to log in, a guarantee that can be ensured by sending unique user IDs and passwords by email. Obviously, this assumes that every member of the electorate has a valid and validated email ID.

But to assume that what is good for a handful of privately held companies can be applied on ground in a rough and ready democracy like India, would be to miss the point.

Naturally, in a republic as vast and diverse as India with 814.5 million voters — a number larger than the population of Europe — in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, pertinent questions will be asked. Can online elections be feasible, fair and secure?

Skeptics like Tirthankar Bandyopadhyay, a former BBC veteran and now an independent journalist based out of London, are caustic in their assessment. “Sundar Pichais and Satya Nadellas are far and few in between. A vast majority of Indians, even in urban areas, still suffer from technology-phobia. My parents, who are both on the wrong side of 70, consider technology as a short cut, which is prone to systemic failure and easily susceptible to fraud. During my recent trip to India, I found ticketing machines at the railway stations on the suburban lines barely used. In fact, there is a deficit in popular perception about the utility of technology and any genuine effort to imbibe it as part of daily life. If this is the situation in the urban and semi-urban areas, one can well imagine the case in the rural hinterland. And as they say, India lives in its villages, so any change in perception and culture need to be initiated in India’s heartland before mapping any idea based on a phenomenon which still now is perceived to be urbane.” Valid point.

The question of online voters has gathered some momentum in the light of experiences in the world’s developed democracies. Internet voting systems have gained popularity in government elections and referendums in the United Kingdom, Estonia, and Switzerland as well as municipal elections in Canada and party primaries in the United States and France.

Arizona in the US made transitional moves towards online voting some time ago. Each registered Democrat received a personal identification number in the mail. These citizens had the option to either cast ballots at a designated location or over the internet from the comfort of their homes.

Voters on the net were required to insert their PIN and answer two personal questions. Once the information was verified, they had the voting options. In Estonia, each voter has a national ID card, which establishes the citizen’s bonafides. The ID card is the security Estonia puts in to ensure reliability in votes. Security officials there admit they have not detected any unusual activity or tampering of the votes. Again it is instructive to remember that the scale and magnitude of elections and voters in these countries are miniscule as compared to India.

There are also hybrid systems that include an electronic ballot marking device (usually a touch screen system) or other technology to print a voter verified paper audit trail, then use a separate machine for electronic tabulation.

Votaries of online polling in India believe a new system based on the internet could eventually be a substitute for poll reform; the humongous cost that the polling process involves, the unsavory pre-poll, post poll violence, booth capturing and other infirmities.

Take the 2014 general elections as a benchmark. Verifiable estimates put the money spent by political parties at Rs 1,308 crore, a whopping 386 per cent increase on the 2004 Lok Sabha elections. Unofficial expenditure in cash would probably be far higher. In addition, the Centre spent nearly Rs 3,500 crore on the conduct of the polls while an equal amount was borne by the Indian Railways, state government and allied government agencies. Expensive stuff for a poor country like India.

No amount of realism can overlook the virtually insurmountable challenges that confront the idea of online voting in India - challenges that span the matrix of politics, society and technology. Nonetheless, it is an idea whose time has come. There are those who believe that the existing technology infrastructure can be leveraged to reach this goal. The difficulty can be overcome with just small, inexpensive hardware devices that are used for secure logins in some banks and multinational companies, but the cost and difficulty of distributing such devices comes very high.

Consider the spread of technology. Data published by the National Payment Corporation of India (NCPI) suggests that almost 1.45 lakh ATMs in India today accept the RuPay card. This number is, perhaps, comparable to the 8.35 lakh polling booths during the 2014 Lok Sabha polls and so can be used to reduce the load on the traditional EVM-based booths significantly. This will also lead to a surge in the issuance and usage of RuPay cards and help it break into a market dominated by global giants.

Bandyopadhyay, a veteran of covering polls in India and the UK, talks of some home truths. “Here in the UK, they are yet to opt for online voting as the government fears it would become a huge job for them. Extrapolate that to India and you can see the mammoth task that lies ahead for the EC and the administration. More tasks can lead to more lapses. The advocates of voting reform are not impressed though. They find it crazy that in 2015, young people are expected to queue up to tick a box on a bit of paper (as is the case in the UK) or to press a button in India. In fact, India has come a long way in reforming the voting system as compared to Britain.’’

Add to it the complexities peculiar to India. One, because of the vast size of her electorate and two, the many shades of political and social intricacies that dominate the landscape. “Even if online voting comes into effect in India, it will be biased towards the urban voters. Despite being described as the digital powerhouse of the world, online transformation is still essentially an urban phenomenon. Merely a few million techies working on IT projects and call centres do not necessarily make India a witness to digital revolution,’’ he points out.

There are, however, those who strongly back digital voting. Lakshmi Sriram, senior programme associate, Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR), says that the benefits of digital voting can be more tangible and immediate. A large fraction of Indian voters comprise of migrant labourers, white collar workers and students who are registered voters in their home constituencies, but are unable to go back to cast their franchise. What this does is to effectively disenfranchise a substantial portion of the Indian electorate. Digital polling could provide the migratory population an opportunity to vote. Plus it cuts down on malpractices like booth capturing or accusations of EVM tamperi ng and intimidation.

In such a scenario, the economic implications of online voting are worth looking at. A lengthy, cumbersome and expensive election process in the world’s largest democracy has to be borne by its common people. TV Mohandas Pai, chairman of Manipal Global Education and former member of the board of directors of Infosys, admits that the government comes to a standstill, economic activity is hurt and decision-making delayed during the election process. The result is that costs pike up.

While theoretically agreeing with the idea of digital polling, he is aware of the pros and cons. Faster turnaround is certainly a plus. The minus point is that serious training is required before it can be implemented on ground. Besides, the environment is difficult because of the country’s incredible diversity. While it may be politically incorrect to admit it, the Indian society may not be socially and economically mature to embrace an online election process, at least, not yet.

Points out Pai: “We need a single-day election for Parliament, state and the panchayat. That could be a likely solution to let us survive as a democracy without the humongous cost of the election.’’ Above all, he says, there would be legal challenges, which would depend on how smoothly we amend our laws.

While economic costs will be undoubtedly lower, politically, the challenges would be close to climbing a mountain. Political parties, who even oppose questions on their sources of funding and are apparently confident of enjoying popular support, are hardly likely to provide their backing for such a transparent project.

The degree of this challenge, resistance or reluctance (to say the least) can be gauged by the fact that several questionnaires sent to major political parties on the subject, followed up with several reminders, did not elicit any response.

A young tech savvy BJP leader — speaking strictly on conditions of anonymity — agreed to speak on the online voting system, but eventually withdrew his responses, unsure of how his party would view them. The only political response that came was from a Trinamul Congress Rajya Sabha MP, albeit with the customary disclaimer that his views were strictly personal and had nothing to do with the party line.

“Personally speaking, the use of modern technology to save time, money and unwarranted practices during elections should be a welcome development provided that introduction does not corrupt our electoral system in favour of or against any party or candidate,” avers Sukhendu Sekhar Ray, Trinamul Congress Rajya Sabha MP, who is also a senior advocate.

Ray then provides a philosophical perspective. ``It needs to be ensured that the will of the people, which is supreme in a liberal democracy like ours, must get preference over any other factor. There can never be a foolproof system as anti-social elements are working overtime to jettison achievements of modern technology. Yet we have to adopt changes keeping pace with times.’’ Implicit in his explanation is the big challenge: how do we do it?

The Trinamul MP is, however, quick to point out that his party is yet to discuss this subject organisationally. “If such a proposal is mooted by the EC, our party shall definitely consider and express its views. Party supremo Mamata Banerjee has long been a supporter of electoral, judicial and administrative reforms. This is possibly the need of the hour, keeping in mind the growing demand as well as the ongoing worldwide technological development.’’

Admits ADR’s Lakshmi Sriram: “Politically, such a measure is not possible without all parties agreeing. Due to India’s multi-party politics where coalition governments are formed due to their inherent need to stay in power and not for their ideological similarities, the leaders mainly look at their political interests.’’

She adds: “There is an inherent and at times collusive bond between political parties and companies. This very caricature of electoral democracy has gone hand-in-hand with the rise of crony capitalism. With the aid of legislation to improve transparency and accountability in the functioning of political parties, there can be a marked change in not just how elections are held, but also how the country is governed. One such example is the public interest litigation (PIL) filed by ADR requesting for an election expenditure limit to be set on political parties, apart from frequent and regular submission of their expenditure statements, for public scrutiny. If all political parties come under the ambit of the RTI Act, as requested by ADR in its PIL to the Supreme Court, transparency in their functioning would become the norm.”

The sin qua non of a healthy democracy is that any new system evokes debates, discussions, deliberations and often sparks off controversies before it is put to practice. But would the all-powerful political parties like to change the status quo ante?

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