Source: 
The Newsminute
https://www.thenewsminute.com/long-form/questions-swirl-around-committee-that-certifies-indias-electronic-voting-machines
Author: 
Neel Madhav, Parth MN
Date: 
22.04.2024
City: 

The Election Commission of India’s Technical Expert Committee is plagued by potential conflicts of interest.

What is common between India’s elections, the country’s much-hyped global financial hub, one of the largest securities depositories in the world, and the electricity corporation of Gujarat?

The presence of an acclaimed computer scientist, whom a peer once described as the “dada [big brother] of computer architecture in the country.”

Over the past many years, Professor Rajat Moona’s staunch defence of the electronic voting system in India has been burnished by his credentials — degrees from the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) in Kanpur and the Indian Institute of Science in Bengaluru, teaching and administrative positions in several IITs, and a leadership stint at the government-owned Centre for Development of Advanced Computing, or C-DAC. In the last year alone, Moona has been appointed to three influential directorship positions in varied organisations, two of which are government-controlled or owned. 

Moona is among the key architects of the country’s electronic voting systems, in particular the Voter Verifiable Paper Audit Trail (VVPAT) machines. He is also one of the four experts on the ECI’s Technical Expert Committee (TEC), appointed to independently assess and endorse the reliability of those very systems on behalf of the Election Commission of India (ECI). Several questions swirl around the TEC’s functioning and its mandate.

A system audited by insiders

The ECI’s Technical Expert Committee (TEC), first formed in 1990, is meant to ensure the integrity of the country’s electronic voting systems on behalf of the election commission. It is supposed to certify that Electronic Voting Machines (EVMs) are secure, address concerns of tampering, and offer its technical expertise for the improvement of existing systems or the inclusion of new ones. The EVMs have several components — the ballot units on which the voter presses the button; the VVPAT, which confirms the vote by printing a slip that is shown to the voter for a few seconds through an illuminated window; and the control unit on which the final vote is registered. There is a lesser-known device called the Symbol Loading Unit (SLU), which is used to transfer election symbols and candidate lists from a laptop onto VVPATs at the constituency.  

Unlike similar systems in other democracies, the source codes — the set of instructions that guide the functioning of a machine — of India’s EVM system have never undergone an audit by experts independent of government, which makes this committee extraordinarily significant. Its opinion shapes the fairness and truthfulness of the country’s electoral process.

The current TEC was constituted in November 2010, during the Manmohan Singh regime, with four experts: Moona, then teaching at IIT Kanpur; professor Dinesh K Sharma of IIT Bombay; as well as professors DT Shahani and AK Agarwala of IIT Delhi. 

The VVPAT machines were piloted during a bye-election in 2013, and partially introduced in the 2014 general elections. In late 2013, the Supreme Court ruled that “the paper trail is an indispensable requirement of free and fair elections.” 

In 2018, the defence ministry public-sector unit Bharat Electronics Limited (BEL) — one of two state-run companies that manufacture EVMs in India — applied for a patent. BEL’s application on March 23, 2018 sought intellectual ownership over VVPAT machines, which print the vote to help a voter confirm that their vote has been cast as intended.

Among the 12 people that BEL’s application listed as “inventors” of the VVPAT were Moona, Shahani, Agarwala, and Sharma. So, this means, when the TEC quartet certifies the systems, it is essentially endorsing itself.

“While the ECI has been denying an independent audit of the EVM system, including VVPATs, as demanded by the civil society, it is a matter of utmost distress that it should rather choose to depend on those who own the patent for VVPAT system for certifying their authenticity,” EAS Sarma, a retired IAS officer who has been a secretary of several key central ministries, told us. “It is clearly a case of conflict of interest that raises serious questions,” he said. 

Jagdeep Chhokar, a founder of the Association for Democratic Reforms, which is a petitioner in an ongoing Supreme Court case on EVMs, pointed out that “there is no dearth of independent evaluators who are technically qualified.” He added, “This sort of in-breeding that ‘I design’ and ‘I give certificate’ is obviously not done.” 

Dinesh Sharma, the IIT Bombay professor on the TEC, refused to discuss anything with us, saying that he could not talk to the media, and directed us to the ECI. When asked about the conflict of interest in the TEC certifying their own invention, he appeared to contradict the claims made in BEL’s patent documents, which list him as one of the inventors. “We have not invented the VVPAT. When the Election Commission asks, we give inputs for improvement,” he told us.

BEL’s patent application listing Moona, Shahani, Agarwala, and Sharma as “inventors” of the VVPAT

In Moona’s own telling, according to his LinkedIn profile, “As a member of technical committee of EVMs, I played an instrumental role in designing M3 EVMs and VVPATs” — M3 refers to the generation of EVMs currently in use. “These are security beauties and I had a fulfilling experience in designing them.” In 2017, while Moona was at C-DAC, the organisation was also developing prototypes for EVMs that could enable remote voting.

Screenshot from Moona’s LinkedIn profile
Screenshot from Moona’s LinkedIn profile

In 2019, India held the first-ever general election in which a VVPAT machine was attached to every EVM. Prime Minister Narendra Modi claimed a decisive victory for his second term in power, although the ECI was criticised for not acting against Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) members who violated the Model Code of Conduct.

BEL was granted the patent for the VVPAT on May 24, 2022. By September that year, months before Gujarat went into Assembly elections, Moona, then the Director of IIT Bhilai, was appointed the Director of IIT Gandhinagar. 

A slew of directorships and other appointments followed soon after.

In March 2023, Moona was included in a three-member expert committee to evaluate applications from foreign universities looking to set up offshore campuses at the Gujarat International Finance Tec-City Company Limited (GIFT City). First conceptualised during Modi’s tenure as Gujarat’s Chief Minister, GIFT City is intended to emulate financial centres such as Singapore and Hong Kong. Billed as a greenfield smart city, it operates as a multi-service Special Economic Zone, with considerable tax exemptions and relaxed regulations. 

Moona is part of three-member expert committee at Gujarat International Finance Tec-City Company Limited (GIFT City)
Moona is part of three-member expert committee at Gujarat International Finance Tec-City Company Limited (GIFT City)

By July, according to media reports, Moona was also appointed to the advisory committee of the business event Vibrant Gujarat, along with a host of other people such as the businessman Gautam Adani, the politician and industrialist Parimal Nathwani, the banker Uday Kotak, and Bharat Bhasker, the director of the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad.

That same month, Moona was appointed the additional director of the GIFT City. Towards the end of year, he became a director.

Almost a fortnight later, on January 9, 2024, Moona was also appointed by the SEBI as a public interest director at the National Securities Depository Limited (NSDL), the Mumbai-based subsidiary of the National Stock Exchange. One of the largest such depositories in the world, the NSDL essentially stores investors’ shares in an electronic form. 

Moona appointed public interest director at the National Securities Depository Limited (NSDL)
Moona appointed public interest director at the National Securities Depository Limited (NSDL)

Within a week of his appointment at the NSDL, Moona found himself on the board of directors at the Gujarat Urja Vikas Nigam Limited, the state government-owned holding company that is responsible for the generation, distribution, and transmission of electricity in Gujarat.

Moona on the board of directors at Gujarat Urja Vikas Nigam Limited
Moona on the board of directors at Gujarat Urja Vikas Nigam Limited

There are no official filings on the monetary and non-monetary privileges that Moona enjoys as a result of these appointments yet. Over the phone, Moona declined to give us a response and did not hear any of our questions, “While the elections are going on, it is not fair to comment.” In response to a request to check the emailed questionnaire, he said: “I will not give you an answer, that is what I was trying to say.” 

“It is not against the law but it is a more delicate kind of situation, therefore one would expect higher standards of probity here,” Chhokar said, referring to Moona’s directorships. “If the technical experts who guide the election commission on such critical issues as technology are involved with the government, then there is a shadow on the independence of the ECI,” Chhokar said.

Former Election Commissioner Ashoka Lavasa did not think that such external positions affected the tasks of the TEC members. “There is nothing that prevents them from doing their normal academic work, or any other work, which is associated with their expertise,” he said, “It is Rajat Moona’s job to defend and explain the credibility of the EVMs and VVPATs…I don’t see how the responsibilities that he is discharging are in conflict with his other responsibilities,” Lavasa said.  

For Sarma, Moona’s appointments only deepened existing conflicts of interest and were part of a larger pattern. He cited a recent instance, in which he wrote a letter to the ECI, urging the commission to remove four BEL directors he alleged were affiliated to the BJP. “All these call for a judicial inquiry urgently to safeguard the sanctity of the electoral process,” Sarma said. 

“You don’t only have to be fair, you also have to appear to be fair,” Justice Anjana Prakash, a former judge of the Patna High Court said. According to her, Moona’s directorships would “actually lessen the objectivity that is required on this contested matter.” At the very least, Prakash told us, “there has to be some kind of show of objectivity.” She added, “It is not a foregone conclusion that he will act unfairly but point is when we are looking for objectivity, this [objectivity] could be compromised.”

Through his personal account on Twitter (now known as X) — Moona often “liked” posts from the accounts of BJP leaders — such as Prakash Javadekar, Ravi Shankar Prasad — and the PM’s office. Often, these posts were about the Prime Minister.

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Rajat Moona's Likes on Twitter
Rajat Moona's Likes on Twitter

Over 45 years ago, the Hyderabad-based Electronics Corporation of India (ECIL), a public-sector unit that reports to the Department of Atomic Energy, developed a prototype for an EVM. The Election Commission demonstrated the machine to representatives from political parties in 1980.

In 1982, the Election Commission replaced paper ballots with electronic machines in 50 out of 123 booths in North Paravur — then known as Paravur — in Kerala’s Ernakulam district. After the results were declared, the Congress candidate challenged his defeat by approaching the Kerala High Court and then the Supreme Court. A report in The Hindu recounted that he argued that the Representation of the People Act and the Conduct of Elections Rules did not empower the Election Commission to use electronic voting machines at that time. Eventually, the Supreme Court ordered a re-poll in the concerned constituencies with ballot papers and the Congress candidate won.

By 1989, an amendment to the Representation of the People Act, which authorised the use of EVMs by the Election Commission, came into force. BEL and ECIL were selected to manufacture the devices. 

In 1990, the Indian government instituted an Electoral Reforms Committee, comprising representatives from national and regional political parties. This committee recommended that EVMs be examined by technical experts. And so, the first TEC was formed with S Sampath, from the Defence Research and Development Organisation, as its head, with Professor PV Indiresan from IIT Delhi and Dr Rao C Kasarbada from the ER and DC Institute of Technology, Trivandrum.

Since then, the TEC has been reconstituted twice, once in 2005 and then in 2010 with its current composition. In a story for The Wire, the journalist Meetu Jain noted that the ECI’s Status Paper on EVMs from November 2021 “does not spell out if the source code is shared with the TEC,” for evaluation. In 2019, when a petitioner approached the Supreme Court for the source code, she noted, the ECI told the court that the TEC audits the software. But in responses to two separate RTI  requests, Jain wrote, the TEC said that the audit is done by the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology’s audit cell, called the Standardisation Testing and Quality Certification.

In fact, Jain pointed out, in its 1990 report, the TEC recommended that the source codes for EVMs be made public. The 2006 committee did so as well. In 2013, she noted, the TEC suggested the provision of a facility so that the “code in EVM units can be read out by an approved external unit and the code so read may be compared with corresponding reference code to show that code is same as that in the reference units. The scope of comparison is only to ensure that there is no trojan or other malware for EVMs in use.” 

The reports Jain accessed were obtained by the transparency activist Venkatesh Nayak in March 2019 through RTI requests. However, the EC only gave Nayak reports prepared between 1990 and 2013. Since the reports after these years are not in the public domain, it is unclear how many times the TEC has met since, or what the details of these proceedings are.

In 2019, for instance, when the former Indian Administrative Service (IAS) officer Kannan Gopinathan — who was also an election officer in the general elections that year — wrote a nine-page-long letter to the ECI pointing to technical issues in the electronic voting systems, the TEC was tasked with examining the veracity of his claims. Gopinathan told us that he still hasn’t heard back on what the results of this examination were.

Such opacity appears to be reflected in some patent filings related to VVPATs as well. Patent filings during 2018-19 show differing claims on the glass through which a voter sees the slip corresponding to their vote. 

In patent filings on March 23, 2018, BEL provided a patent drawing of the VVPAT and called it the “transparent window.” In another drawing, it is called the “viewing window.” In the same filing, under the “complete specifications” section, it is labelled a “translucent viewing window to ensure voters secrecy.” Under the sub-heading “brief descriptions of the drawing,” they refer to it as the “transparent/semi translucent window.” Venkatesh Nayak told us, “There are stark inconsistencies in the patent filings, potentially indicating carelessness, or obfuscation, which negatively affect the voter’s right to know the design and the functioning of the machine.” He added that if it is indeed a viewing window, as the filing states, then it is not clear why the ECI’s “Do’s and Don’ts” in the VVPAT manual caution against placing the VVPAT under direct sunlight, or next to a window, or close to bright light source, such as halogens. In the drawings submitted for the patent filing, on March 6, 2019,  BEL calls it the  “transparent window.”  

In August 2020,  ECIL and BEL jointly filed an application for a design patent for a prismatic lens. According to Moona’s official profile on the IIT Gandhinagar website, he is the designer of this prismatic lens.

Since 2019, one of the four members of the TEC has been putting his thumb impressions instead of his signature on documents relating to the VVPAT patent filings as well as patent filings relating to other inventions . When we asked a close relative of Professor Agarwala about this change, they told us that he had been suffering from a neurological condition for the last few years, “which led to tremors, because of which he was unable to sign.” 

The relative told us that since May 2023, “he is ill and not able to recover. It is a permanent thing. The condition can remain stable, but it is not going to improve. He is not able to talk to anyone.” They confirmed that Agarwala continues to be a part of the TEC but is unable to participate now since “he stays in bed 24X7.” Currently, the relative said, he was functioning with the help of a feeding and suction tube.

A voter’s belief in the legitimacy of their country’s election is vital for the stability of a functioning democracy. In India, this faith appears to be eroding at an alarming rate. A recent pre-poll survey by Lokniti, the research programme of The Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS), revealed a severe decline in the level of trust that voters felt in the Election Commission. When compared to the last such survey in 2019, twice as many people said that they “don’t have much trust,” or “have no trust at all” in the ECI. Close to half the respondents believed that there was either a lot of or some scope for EVMs to be manipulated by the ruling party. “It is clear that steps need to be taken to build greater public confidence in EVMs,” Sandeep Shastri, the national coordinator of the Lokniti network, wrote. 

The electronic voting system that the TEC certifies is currently mired in controversy. On April 15, 2024, the ECI released its revised list of hundred frequently asked questions, in which it vehemently denounced concerns regarding the credibility of EVMs and VVPAT. We will be looking at these claims closely in part two of this series. 
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We have sent Moona, the other members of the TEC, and the ECI detailed questionnaires; this story will be updated as and when we receive responses.

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