Rasheed Kidwai and Pheroze L. Vincent, TT, April 1: Alleged mix-ups by an electronic voting machine during a trial ahead of by-elections in Madhya Pradesh has prompted Opposition parties to iterate charges of rigging during the recent Uttar Pradesh polls and seek the machines' replacement by paper ballots.
Journalists present at the demo in Bhind district yesterday said that when chief electoral officer Saleena Singh pressed the button for the Samajwadi Party candidate, the paper trail attached to the voting machine generated a receipt with the BJP's symbol.
Six to seven other buttons were pressed and each time the paper slip showed a wrong recipient, with the BJP the most frequent but not the sole beneficiary, they said. They added that only one of several machines tested malfunctioned.
Nothing has been conclusively established yet and a poll panel source in Delhi insisted that no malfunction took place. Nor does purported footage readily provide incontestable answers.
However, since perceptions do play a role, the controversy appears to have breathed fresh life into what were till now largely considered ludicrous claims by seemingly bad losers in the last round of the Assembly polls.
Some reports accused Singh of threatening the journalists present with detention if they reported "whatever showed on the slips", an allegation the bureaucrat denied today saying she was merely joking.
Video clips showed Singh was indeed smiling when she spoke of detention and laughter from some of those around her could be heard. That the clarification that it was a joke was issued on All Fools' Day appeared a mere coincidence.
Singh played down the machine's behaviour, saying it had not been properly "calibrated" for the demo, but the Election Commission sought a formal report from her.
The reference to "calibrated" seems to imply that it's possible to influence the functioning of the voting machines, which counters the poll panel's oft-repeated stand that the machines are tamper-proof.
State officials said the Election Commission had signalled the removal of the district magistrate of Bhind - the returning officer for the April 9 by-election to Ater Assembly seat - and the superintendent of police.
The local perception is that they are under the scanner for the alleged glitch and the failure to register a case of poll irregularity, respectively, but a poll panel source linked it to a routine complaint related to neutrality.
A statement the Election Commission issued this evening after visits from Congress and Aam Aadmi Party delegations made no reference to any voting machine malfunctioning.
It said the poll panel would send "a team of high-level officers" to Madhya Pradesh "to ensure the correct functioning" of voting machines and the voter-verified paper audit trail machines that briefly show a slip with the symbol of the party voted for.
It said two teams of commission officials and technical experts would also be sent to demonstrate "the integrity" of the machines "to the complete satisfaction of all stakeholders". The teams will remain in the Assembly constituency till the end of counting.
A commission source claimed that at yesterday's demo, the paper slip had "corresponded accurately to the buttons pressed" and "when she (Singh) pressed the button allotted to the BJP, a slip with the lotus came up".
He said that "someone joked, saying: ' Ab toh ho gaya (Now we're done for)'", creating an impression of something gone amiss.
The source claimed the commission was sending teams to demonstrate the machines' "integrity" only because of the incorrect reports that had lowered people's confidence.
The commission source said that if the district magistrate and police chief are removed at all, it would be because the "Congress has complained they are not neutral" and because their files, now being examined, have thrown up some reason to do so.
"This is not related to Saleena's demonstration," the source insisted.
Singh today said in Bhopal: "I had gone to Bhind to participate in an EVM demonstration/familiarisation exercise. I made some remark in jest and local reporters had a good laugh in a healthy environment."
Asked why a "faulty" machine was used, she said: "When you have a fully calibrated machine, this (vote mismatch) cannot happen. But they (the journalists present) misrepresented the facts without trying to understand the whole issue."
A computer scientist who specialises in information technology security said that testing a voting machine against a paper audit trail is likely to be a two-step process.
First, the voting machine would be loaded with electronic data specifying the identity of each candidate or contesting party. Then, the paper trail would be placed atop the device, configured accurately so that the electronic result matches the paper result.
"If pressing any key leads to a result for a single party, it would be a serious problem," said Dheeraj Sanghi, professor at the Indraprastha Institute of Information Technology, New Delhi.
"However, if there are inconsistent results, with the results appearing to be assigned to arbitrary parties, it could be a configuration issue."
According to some journalists who watched the demo, the BJP received three mock votes out of the seven or eight cast, with one of the other votes going to the Bahujan Samaj Party, which isn't in the fray in Ater.
The Congress, Independents and some smaller parties received votes too, they said.
Videos purportedly showing the demo have gone viral on the social media, but they don't show the party configurations of the buttons pressed or the symbols on the paper slip. The Telegraph could not independently verify the authenticity of the videos.
In one, Singh purportedly tells the reporters: "You must be satisfied now, there's one (vote) for the BJP and one for the Congress."
According to the poll panel statement, its high-level team will be led by Andhra Pradesh chief electoral officer Bhanwar Lal (a chief secretary-level official) and will include senior principal secretary R.K. Srivastava and principal secretary Varinder Kumar.
Lal will supervise the by-elections to the Ater and Bandhavgarh Assembly seats in Madhya Pradesh on April 9, with Singh "playing a limited role", a commission source said.
The Congress and Arvind Kejriwal met the Election Commission to question the fairness of the voting machines and seek paper ballots for the upcoming Delhi civic polls and the April 9 by-elections in Madhya Pradesh.
Additional reporting by G.S. Mudur