When media reports appeared on April 1 that electronic voting machines had spewed out slips showing just the symbol of the Bharatiya Janata Party, the lotus, during a demonstration by election officials in Madhya Pradesh, rival political parties were quick to latch on to them.
In March, in neighbouring Uttar Pradesh, Bahujan Samaj Party leader Mayawati had alleged that the voting machines used in Assembly polls held in the state in February-March had been rigged by the BJP. Arvind Kejriwal of the Aam Aadmi Party had made similar allegations about machines used in the Punjab polls conducted simultaneously.
So when reports said the electronic voting machines used in Uttar Pradesh had travelled to Madhya Pradesh for bypolls in Ater constituency in Bhind district and Bandhavgarh constituency in Umaria district that are scheduled for Sunday, and a paper audit trail had dispensed only slips with the BJP symbol, they caused much alarm. The incident also led to the suspension of 19 officials, including a district collector and a superintendent of police.
A committee set up by the Election Commission has found that there was no truth in the allegations.
Scroll.in travelled to Bhind to investigate the allegations and speak to journalists who were the first to report the story and officials who were present at the demonstration on March 31. An examination of the reports that appeared in newspapers and on TV channels suggests that misreporting by one newspaper seems to have made it all the way to the national media.
What happened on March 31
On the afternoon of March 31, the Madhya Pradesh chief electoral officer, Saleena Singh, held a media briefing at a hall in the zila parishad building in Bhind town to discuss election preparedness in Ater constituency. Among those present were top officials of the state election commission, former District Collector Ilayaraja T, Superintendent of Police Anil Singh Kushwah, a group of mediapersons and a senior zila parishad officer, among a few others. During the briefing, Singh talked about the voter-verifiable paper audit trail machine and how it works in conjunction with the electronic voting machine. She went on to give an impromptu demonstration of how the audit trail works.
A VVPAT machine records each vote on paper and allows the voter to verify the paper record while casting the vote electronically. A slip with the chosen party symbol appears on a display screen for seven seconds and then automatically drops inside the machine.
As Singh pressed a button, the lotus symbol with the name of Satyadev Pachauri – the winning BJP candidate from Govind Nagar constituency in Kanpur during the Uttar Pradesh Assembly elections, whose results were declared on March 11 – appeared on the display screen of the VVPAT machine. On seeing the lotus symbol, some reporters suggested in jest that the machine was biased towards the BJP. Singh responded to the comments. She laughed and warned them against reporting on such lines, saying she would take them to the police station if they did.
Some reporters took offence at the remark, even as Singh and her team of election officials went on to press at least two other buttons.
Till here, all the versions in the press reports match. The divergence is over what happened next.
A widely circulated video of the incident shows Singh’s exchange of remarks with the journalists while she tested the electronic voting machine but it does not show the results on the VVPAT machine.
What local papers reported
Three major Hindi newspapers have offices in Bhind – Patrika, Dainik Bhaskar and Nayi Duniya – and all three had reporters present at the briefing. There is a stringer who contributes to two major news agencies but he was not at the event. A stringer for Hindi news channel Aaj Tak was also present, among a few others.
Patrika headline on April 1: “Demo mein pehli parchi nikli Bhajpa ki, Congress ne kaha ballot paper se ho chunao” (BJP slip first to come out during demo, Congress asks for polls to be conducted with ballot paper)
The front-page report said the first slip that emerged from the VVPAT machine during the demonstration displayed the BJP symbol, and after some mediapersons raised questions, Singh threatened them. It went on to quote Madhya Pradesh Congress leader Govind Singh suggesting that the electronic voting machines were tampered with and asking for voting through ballot paper. The report did not say what results had emerged on the VVPAT machine after the buttons on the electronic voting machine were pressed twice more.
However, the paper carried a second article next to the main report – headlined “Loktantra ki hatya ka prayas: Govind Singh” (Attempt to murder democracy: Govind Singh) – which had Congress leader Govind Singh’s take on the controversy. And in the continuation of that second story on an inside page, the reporter quoted the Congress leader as saying that BJP slips had come out twice when button number four of the electronic voting machine was pressed.
When contacted, the chief of Patrika’s reporting team in Bhind, Ramanand Soni, said, “Lotus slip [symbol of the BJP] did not appear twice and we have reported the facts correctly.” The reporter, Subhash Tripathi, too stood by his story.
Nai Duniya headline on April 1: “Mukkhya Nirvachan Padashikari hass kar boli – press mein dia toh thane mein baithaenge” (Chief electoral officer jokingly said if you put it in the press, I will take you to the police station)
According to the report, the slips from the VVPAT machine emerged in this sequence: the first one showed the BJP’s lotus symbol, the second showed the Rashtriya Lok Dal’s hand pump, and the third showed the Congress’ hand. The report said the election officer asked the reporters not to publish anything about the VVPAT slips. Speaking to Scroll.in, the reporter, Abbas Ahmed, vouched for the accuracy of his report.
A senior officer of the district collectorate, who did not wish to be identified, and the chief executive officer of the zila parishad in Bhind, both present for the demonstration, also narrated the same sequence of slips.
Dainik Bhaskar headline on April 1: “EVM ka do baar button dabaya toh print huwa kamal ka chinh” (Pressed twice, EVM buttons produced slip with the lotus symbol)
The report said the BJP slip appeared twice even though the election officers pressed two different buttons.
When asked about the difference between his account and the reports published in other newspapers, the Dainik Bhaskar reporter, Lajpat Agarwal, initially said he did not see anything clearly after the first two buttons pressed by the Chief Electoral Officer but he saw the election officials pressing four buttons in total.
“The symbol of the flower [Lotus] had appeared but whether she had pressed the same button corresponding to the Lotus, there is no clarity on that. But a lotus slip had emerged,” he said. He still did not clarify at what point he saw two lotus slips emerging on the VVPAT machine.
He then went on to say how Saleena Singh’s remarks had offended reporters. When pointed to the Nai Duniya report that said the slips had appeared in a particular sequence, he said that account was correct. Asked why then he had reported that there were two slips with the BJP symbol, he turned defensive and claimed he had seen two slips displaying the lotus symbol lying near the VVPAT machine.
The last claim is questionable. As far as the functioning of the VVPAT machine is concerned, the paper slips drop only in a container inside the machine.
Ravindra Jharkhariya, news editor of Dainik Bhaskar’s Gwalior office, to which the team in Bhind reports, claimed his was the only paper to have published the facts correctly. He refused to comment on the sequence of slips reported in other publications.
“If there was no problem in the VVPAT machine and BJP slip had not appeared twice, why did Ms Singh threaten the media?” he asked, adding, “The Election Commission is now trying to suppress the issue through its report [ruling out tampering].”
Report of Election Commission
On Friday, the Election Commission published its report on the incident in which it clearly stated that four buttons were pressed on the electronic voting machine and four separate slips were produced in the VVPAT machine. It clarified the sequence as – hand pump (Rashtriya Lok Dal), lotus (BJP), hand pump (Rashtriya Lok Dal) and hand (Congress). No news reporter contacted by us, however, happened to have noticed the first hand pump symbol.
The national media
It took a day for the story to make it to national newspapers. On April 2, the Indian Express published a report with the headline “Madhya Pradesh EVM trial reignites ‘tampering’ row, EC calls for report”.
Since it did not have a reporter in Bhind, the newspaper relied on the reports that had appeared in the local papers. It began by saying: “Following reports that a Voter Verifiable Paper Audit Trail [VVPAT] machine used during a trial in Madhya Pradesh only dispensed slips with the BJP’s poll symbol…” But then, it also went on to reflect the confusion over what had happened in Bhind.
“There were varying reports of what transpired during the trial,” it said. “Some reports said the VVPAT machine dispensed slips with the BJP’s lotus symbol twice, although different buttons were pressed on the EVM. Another version, however, said different symbols were printed.”
The Times of India, however, dispensed with caution and termed the electronic voting machines “faulty”. In a report published on April 3, it said, “The EVM that triggered nationwide controversy after reeling out BJP voter slips during a dummy test in Bhind was routed here from Kanpur after being used in the UP assembly poll, an Election Commission team said on Sunday after testing it.”
While reporting that the VVPAT machines dispensed slips showing only the BJP symbol, NDTV attributed it to local media reports.
A report on Aaj Tak said: “EVM fails trial test in Madhya Pradesh’s Bhind. As soon as a button on an EVM was pressed, the BJP candidate’s slip appeared on the VVPAT. Election Commission has sought a report on the matter.” The Aaj Tak stringer, Sarvesh Purohit, told Scroll.in that the BJP symbol did not appear twice, but he refused to say what he had communicated to his office.
A story on ABP News, however, claimed the VVPAT machine had produced two BJP slips. The reporter in the piece-to-camera is Brijesh Rajput, a Bhopal-based correspondent. Reporters present at the trial said Rajput was not at the venue on March 31.
When contacted, Rajput said button number four on the electronic voting machine was pressed twice – once by an Election Commission officer and once by chief electoral officer Saleena Singh. “So technically paper slips corresponding to BJP appeared twice on the VVPAT. But what actually created a controversy was the exchange of words between Saleena Singh and some journalists,” he said. Rajput admitted that he was not present at the demonstration, but said he had received information from reliable reporters who had attended it.
There is still a catch there. In his telephonic report during the news show, Rajput tactically avoids saying “two different buttons”.
The Dainik Bhaskar report, however, said that though different buttons were pressed, the BJP slip had appeared on the VVPAT machine.
What Election Commission said
The Election Commission sent a committee of officials to Bhind to investigate the allegations. On Friday, it held a press conference in Delhi where it announced, “The probe concluded that the EVMs used in the demo in Bhind was not brought from Uttar Pradesh. However, the VVPAT used in the demonstration was brought from UP.”
Chief electoral officer Saleena Singh was not available on phone on Saturday. But Sanjay Singh Baghel, the state-level nodal officer (Madhya Pradesh) in her office, clarified on the controversy. “The CEO’s remark [about taking reporters to the police station] that was highlighted in the media was technically correct but said in an informal manner,” Bagel told Scroll.in on Saturday.
He added, “First, the VVPAT machine did not show wrong slips. The problem was that it was not cleared. Second, misreporting on VVPAT results can attract punishment under Rule 49MA of the Conduct of Election Rules, 1961, and so the CEO warned some media persons against doing so. The police station remark was in relation to potential violation of the rule, which is punishable by imprisonment and/or penalty and/or both. But it was said in a highly informal manner.”
According to Baghel, the matter was blown out of proportion after some political parties (he did not name any) took to social media and the entire narrative changed. “However, a few media organisations had reported the matter right on the first day itself,” he pointed out.
So what happened, actually?
Officials said the problem was that the demonstration on March 31 was unplanned. The protocol for a demonstration is that the machines used are reconfigured with random symbols – not the symbols of the BJP, Congress or any other party in the election fray. The Election Commission clarified that the confusion took place because old data stored in the machine in Uttar Pradesh had not been removed. The Hindu reported, “The machine, that was kept in reserve for the Uttar Pradesh polls, had undergone a standard protocol of randomisation and loading of symbols, but the old symbols were not removed ahead of the same procedure at Bhind in Madhya Pradesh.”