India has been emerging as a global digital power. Her demography has been undergoing digital transformation imperceptibly but rapidly especially after demonetization and the pandemic period. India has in fact moved much ahead of many of her peer countries. Two major areas of this transformation relate to digital identity and digital behaviour e.g., use of internet.
Aadhar was a milestone. It has already given more than 1.3 billion of her people unique biometric based digital identity. That implies over 90% of total population. It was a critical component in building the JAM trinity (Jan Dhan bank account, Aadhar and Mobile) which in turn brought government subsidies to individual beneficiaries directly and seamlessly cutting down labyrinth of middlemen.
India is now in the midst of other ambitious projects including Deeksha infusing technology into education, Ayushman Bharat Digital Scheme building an integrated health data base interoperable by stakeholders, an open network for e-commerce connecting retailers across the country, and more. Significantly, all these initiatives are valuable data points for country’s demography and they can potentially be used for multiple purposes.
In this chain of innovation, Modi government seems to be missing a very important item from its priority list. That is about working towards an ‘online voting system’.
Generally speaking, that new paradigm can elevate the quality of democratic governance to a much higher orbit, pulling governance closer to the ideal of direct democracy. Notably, several countries tried to nibble at it (traced in a later para) but could not cope up with the technology challenges associated with it. They are apparently taking a pause. As we shall see in this article India has both the capacity and an urgent need to take up this challenge.
Surprised? Considering that the country has settled down with EVM system after much debate and acrimony, why think about another change? Is anything wrong with the EVM machines e.g., vulnerability to manipulation as the parties losing polls occasionally allege? No. EVM technology is beyond reproach. However, on deeper analysis EVM based polls (not EVM machines) may be seen to suffer from two important limitations viz., temporal and spatial. Due to these, political parties which are greedy for power and lack scruple but has money and muscle can influence the polling process unfairly. It is more so when they have implicit support from media and sections of bureaucracy.
The situation becomes very grim if parties in question are ruling a state in which case they can, by mobilizing all these resources, exert overarching influence over the movement of voters to booth and the symbols they select in the EVM machines through threat, intimidation, and violence for electoral gains. Against this background let us understand the EVM based system’s twin limitations viz., temporal and spatial?
Temporal is time related. There is only one day available to cast one’s vote. As to ‘spatial’ limitation, a voter can cast vote only at a designated booth in a certain constituency. A dishonest party seeking to manipulate process of voting in its favour tend to mobilize multiplicity of forces for a limited period to scare away voters of its rival parties from casting their vote altogether or coerce them to vote against own choice by issuing threats.
Hurling a bomb, driving away agents of rival parties from various booths, incidents of physical assault or even murders for example, can achieve this purpose with ease. Media reports of violence of various kinds during the assembly polls in West Bengal 2021 clearly exposed limitations of EVM based polls. Things will simply go out of hands for the centre if similar trends extend to more state polls.
It may be readily appreciated that ‘online voting’ system will not only be more efficient in terms of ‘time’ and ‘cost’ but can also overcome both these limitations because it can potentially spread the voting process over a longer time span e.g., a week or fortnight and simultaneously give opportunity to a voter to cast his or her vote in any of a large network of polling stations or from the safety of one’s home using smart phone. That changes the whole dynamics and gives voters refreshing freedom to cast their votes freely without fear or pressure.
Is that a fairy tale proposition? No. We earlier mentioned that some western countries already worked on it but could not proceed beyond a point while a few countries are still working at it. Australia has reportedly used online voting for select population segments in some elections. The benefits of online voting had attracted attention of countries like France, Finland, Ireland, Germany, Canada, Estonia, Lithuania, and few others though they seemed not yet ready for it due to a variety of reasons like security, constitutional provisions, etc. Switzerland is known to be making use of it in some cantons as it sees several advantages in this system. For example, it helped voters (temporarily outside the constituency or country) to cast vote, increased the voter turnout and it reduces the cost of conducting polls substantially in the long run. Needless to say, these considerations equally apply to India.
What about technological feasibility? We have traced India’s digital journey in the introductory para. Generally speaking, considering the current progress of technology including explosive growth in data storage capacity, data processing and analytics, encryption, biometrics and more this is eminently feasible. India has all of that and some more extraordinary achievements as well. In recent times India surprised the world with UPI (mentioned earlier) which revolutionised the payment system in the country in a short span time. Google had in fact recommended that a UPI like architecture for digital payment be replicated in USA to the Federal Reserve System. This is a pointer to India’s technology prowess. In this connection some more impressive demography-oriented achievements by the country like One Nation One Ration Card, e Shram portal, and also the home ministry’s plan to carry out the Census 2021 digitally using a mobile app warrant special mention.
What about chances of hacking and manipulation? The answer again is: that is negligible, especially when we see the gigantic scale of bank transactions happening across the world seamlessly and securely over internet. A reliable study says that the total transaction value in the Digital Payment segment globally is likely to reach USD 8.56 trillion in 2022. According to RBI, India alone may digital transactions to the tune of INR 15 trillion by 2025. It is not that fraud does not happen at all. But it is within acceptable limit and can be addressed effectively. Same thing must apply here as well.
No voting system is full proof. There were unending allegations against paper ballot system and objections are still raised, albeit occasionally, against EVMs. Higher level of encryption technology inherent in online voting system can greatly reduce scope of fraud. As a matter of fact, there are plenty of scope inherent in online voting to inspire public confidence. For example, a system generated operator-blind confidential email confirming whom an individual has voted for can be sent to every voter with a date and time stamp. Indian technology providers can of course think and act far beyond. Simultaneously it needs to be mentioned that the use of biometrics can produce a windfall benefit of eliminating the scope for impersonation altogether.
The naysayers may still oppose online voting saying that large numbers of poor and uneducated masses will not be able to use this digital method. The answer is: a vast majority of Indians have already grown accustomed to using smart phones and digital payment methods during demonetization and covid-19 pandemic times. Adopting the new system may no longer be a formidable challenge. Still, there is no need to impose online voting upon everyone at one go. It may be made optional, starting with the volunteers. Even their numbers are expected to be very large considering its many obvious advantages. It can thereafter be implemented in stages.
Another objection may be the issue of economic viability. Even that is unfounded. The government need not bear the burden. It may go for public-private partnership or depend on the private sector. We have seen how Indian IT companies making core banking system are doing worldwide business. There are bound to be extensive market for robust online voting systems as well and that across the length and breadth of the democratic world. Once a Core Online Voting System (COVS) is developed, it can then be customized for various clients and purposes starting from college union to federal level elections and also conducting referendums at the national level.
On detailed examination, therefore, we find there are no valid grounds against embracing online voting system. The biggest hindrance would be the ‘inertia’ factor. The imitative must come from the ruling party at the centre. Considering PM Modi’s pro-active role in technology revolution in the country it is expected that he may seriously examine its prospect, unless it is already under his consideration. More importantly, the changing political culture in some states and growing intolerance on the part of the ruling parties in some states against their political rivals strongly suggests that India should start working towards ‘online voting system’ at the earliest.
The seriousness of the above issue needs little elaboration. There are disquieting evidence of intolerance degenerating into mindless opposition against rival political parties in several states today and especially against the party at the seat of governance in the centre. These have been finding expressions in various forms. Passing resolutions in state assemblies against successive acts e.g., CAA passed by parliament is a prominent example. The schism is almost like apartheid, no matter that the party at the centre was elected by a vast majority of countrymen. The most worrisome thing is an attitude that it is morally and ethically justified to adopt any means including violence to extinguish the rival.
The urgency for online voting is more pronounced when one looks at the trend and tendencies of some regional parties ruling states to abuse the polls process to grab or retain power at any cost. As stated earlier, it seems a culture of threat, intimidation and violence against voters to coerce them to vote in favour of the ruling party or alliance has begun to take hold in the country. Such politics of fear is being reinforced by widescale incidence of post-poll violence. For example, many media (especially social media) reports about pre-poll machinations and large numbers of cases of post poll violence having been referred by the state High Court to CBI and SIT related to West Bengal Polls held last year send ominous signals for future of democracy in the country. The lure for power and visceral hatred for ruling party at the centre model of politics is likely to be replicated in other states as well in coming years.
There are footprints of political violence visible in other state as well. While speaking on murder of a party worker in Khammam in Telangana, Amit Shah, recently voiced his apprehension that the state of Telangana is following Bengal in the matter of political violence.
The party at the seat of governance in the centre need to understand that the spread of such a culture is a sure prescription for the demise of democracy. Clearly the EVM based system with its temporal and spatial limitations (as discussed already) is not adequate to deal with this new brand of politics that seeks to operate at both overt and covert levels and cripple voters psychologically. The ruling party centre needs to seriously look for the remedy. After all, preservation of democracy is the foremost duty for the ruling dispensation.
The centre must protect the voters at any cost so that they can continue to exercise free will and choose party of their choice. Given that Modi government is a proponent of co-operative federalism and very reticent to use any punitive action against errant regimes at states through measures such as under Art 355 or 356, they would find this new system an effective bulwark against assault on the polls process, which is the soul of democracy.
To conclude, this novel system is bound to be of enormous help for the whole of the democratic world. It is only that no country has so far been successful in implementing it on a big scale. India has not only reasons to go all out for it but also resources including technology and environ of innovation to implement it on ground and render a lasting contribution for the future of democracy in this planet. Globally, Narendra Modi’s name has been interwoven with quite a few unique achievements e.g., ISA (International solar alliance, etc. But this may surpass all that keeping in view the value it holds for the future of human race.