Monday, June 28, 2010

Electronic Voting Machines: Tamperable?

Electronic Voting Machines: Tamperable?
Saeed Naqvi
Dated: 26.06.2010

On July 31, S. Yaqoob Quraishi will take over as the Chief Election Commissioner.

Slots in diplomacy and governorships are already being identified as the retiring chief election commissioner Navin Chawla’s parking lots. But at the Election Commission Chawla has set for himself a busy agenda almost until the end of his term.

For example, on July 27 elections will be held in the 12 assembly seats which had fallen vacant after the Telangana Rashtra Samithi members resigned from the House agitating for a separate Telangana.

This apparently simple election is not without its complications. For instance, elections in two constituencies cannot be held because of a Supreme Court stay. Reason? Two of the candidates claimed they had won the elections. According to a SC judgment if a petitioner challenges election results, a re-election is possible only after the High Court clears the issue.

True to form, TRS leader K. Chandrasekhar Rao claims the elections to these two seats are being held up because of pressure from the Congress.

Quraishi’s first challenge will be elections to the Bihar Assembly due in October-November. Who knows, Tamil Nadu too may call for early elections if K. Karunanidhi is persuaded that, in addition to other calculations, the International Tamil Jamboree has moved Tamil voters in his favour.

A simmering controversy Quraishi will have to contend with is a sustained, low level, campaign by interested parties on the reliability (or otherwise) of the Electronic Voting Machines (EVMs).

Allegation of booth capturing and poll rigging, particularly in states like Bihar had brought into disrepute the old paper ballot.

These allegations made is essential for the Election Commission to explore new technologies. As always in modern Indian political history, Kerala first showed the way when EVMs were tried in 50 polling elections in a constituency in Kerala in 1982.

Subsequently Representation of People Act of 1951 was amended, permitting EVMs since 1989 but not before an Expert Committee, under Prof. P. V. Indiresan was constituted to evaluate these machines.

The General Elections of 2004 and 2009 were conducted entirely on EVMs. Following some critical observations, the Expert Committee suggested some improvements in the machines. These improvements were introduced in 2006.

The controversy has acquired some momentum because many European countries have turned their backs on EVMs i.e. they employed EVMs and then discontinued the practice in favour of good old paper ballots.

Recently, electronic voting has been banned in Ireland, Holland and Germany. Italy and France are not using them either. In the US, systems change from state to state.

In Germany the Supreme Court found EVMs violative of the election law which demands absolute transparency – The objection being that what happens inside a “chip” or a “machine” is not visible to the naked eye.

The lobby placing a question mark on EVMs is citing the European experience. Also, since Bharat Electronics (Ministry of Defence) and the Electronic Corporation of India Ltd. (Dept. of Atomic Energy) are the only manufacturers of EVMs, a case is being made out that official agencies can be persuaded to favour the government in power.

It is being argued that if the machines could leave “paper trail” to be handed to the voter, the system will become beyond reproach. After all, millions of credit card transactions around the world would not be possible without both, electronic registration of the transaction and a paper receipt for the customer.

The counter argument is that in a country where votes are bought and sold, a receipt for having cast a vote will be that much easier to encash.

That is fine, but remember paper also gets jammed obstructing rotation of the paper roll. One such obstruction will hold up the election in a given constituency. Many such hold ups can disrupt the election schedule.

The leadership to those opposing EVMs are politicians like Chandrababu Naidu and Subramanyam Swamy. Also, individuals like former Chief secretary of Delhi, Omesh Sehgal have approached the Election Commission with complaints against EVMs on the grounds that they were “tamperable”.

Psephologist G.V. Narasimha Rao, having gone woefully wrong in his recent electoral predictions, has joined the anti EVM bandwagon.

Another lobby opposing EVMs are undiluted commercial interests.

In 1980, one Mohammad Haneefa of Tamil Nadu approached the Election Commission with an Electronic Voting Machine he had invented. He filed a writ petition before the Madras High Court when the Election Commission seemed to favour Public sector companies. Even though the High Court dismissed the petition, he persisted with this communications with the EC challenging the efficacy of the Public sector manufactured EVMs.

Ultimately in 2007 the EC invited him to make a presentation before the Chief election Officer in Bangalore to establish flaws in the EVMs in use. According to the Election Commission sources “he failed to demonstrate any tamperability”.

After the 2009 elections, Subramaniyam Swami, G.V.L. Narsimha Rao, and one Hari Prasad of Net India (a would be electronic machine manufacturer) asked the Election Commission to let them open an EVM. They were given the permission. When they started taking measurements and noting details of EVM components, the Election Commission stopped them. Why? They may use the data for “reverse engineering”. Strange reason! Quraishi will have to handle the controversy.

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Monday, June 21, 2010

Osh: The Indian Links

Osh: The Indian Links
Saeed Naqvi
Dated: 19.06.2010

There is a medieval and a contemporary Indian link with Osh, the city in the eye of the storm in Southern Kyrgyzstan, bordering Uzbekistan. In fact when Almaty was the capital of Kazakhastan, Osh, in the Farghana Valley, was almost in the middle of an uneven circle linking Almaty, Bishkek, Tashkent, Dushambe capitals of Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikstan – with the Xinxiang region of China in Kyrgyz contiguity.

US and NATO in Afghanistan; Russians, recent masters of the Central Asian region: place all these factors side by side to obtain the big picture of which the brutal Kyrgyz – Uzbek killings in Osh and nearby Jalalabad are only a part.

At this point revert to India’s medieval links with Osh. Residents of Mehrauli next to the Qutub Minar should be particularly interested.

The shrine of Khwaja Qutubuddin Bakhtiar Kaki, the renowned Sufi saint of the Chishti order, happens to be in Mehrauli. He was the disciple of Hazrat Moinuddin Chishti of Ajmer who, during his journey through Osh, embraced him as his spiritual heir. Qutubuddin Bakhtiar Kaki’s disciple was Hazrat Nizamuddin Aulia.

Since the saint set up his abode in Mehrauli during the reigns of Qutub-ud-din Aibak and Iltutmish, and both were his devotees, it can be speculated that the Qutub Minar was named after the saint rather than the slave king who happened to be his devotee. Iltutmish built the stepped well (baoli) for him; Sher Shah Suri, the gate.

Later Moghuls visited the shrine. The last Moghul Emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar actually identified an area next to the Dargah as his final resting place.

But after the uprising of 1857, he was shipped to Yangon where he died in the garage of a junior British officer.

“Kitna hai badnaseeb zafar
dafn ke liye.
Do guz zameen bhi na
Mili kooy-e-yaar mein!”
(How unfortunate O’Zafar. He could not find two-yards of land for burial in the street of his beloved!) the “beloved” is the verse in the spiritual saint, Qutubuddin Bakhtiar Kaki of Osh.

Osh’s second historical link with India is the first Moghul Emperor, Zahir-ud-din Babur made notorious by a mosque he never built. Babur was born in Andijan, 20 kms away from Osh. Osh, being in Farghana, was part of Babur’s territory; he even lived at Osh for brief spells. For long periods Osh remained part of territories linked to Uzbekistan. This is not a terribly convenient piece of history for the young Kyrgyz nation!

Uzbeks, who have been at the receiving end of the current violence, are ethnically or linguistically, not very different from the Kyrgyz. The reason why the Kyrgyz can be easily incited to violence is because the Uzbeks, by their economic prosperity (for historical reasons) are the most visible objects of jealousy and envy.

Contemporary Indian link with Osh is what Jyoti Pandey, Indian Ambassador at Bishkek (Capital of Kyrgyzstan) is currently handling with great dexterity.

It defies belief, but over a 100 Indian students are studying medicine at the Health Institute in obscure Osh. When violence erupted, these trapped Indians were ferried by chartered flights from Osh (a few from Jalalabad too) to Bishkek.

These evacuees from Osh then laid siege to the Indian Embassy demanding further passage to India.

With the collapse of the Soviet Union, a sizeable Indian Diaspora dispersed and settled in its various parts, stretching from Central Asia to Central Europe.

Considerable networking between Indian communists (their families) and their counterparts in Comintern countries during the Soviet era did not dissolve overnight. Ex bureaucrats with experience of Communist countries and the progeny of Indian Communists found lucrative slots in a whole chain of economic ties between these countries and India, including in arms sales.

Indian students in large numbers studied in Patrice Lumunba University, other technical institutes and Medical colleges Moscow had opened in far-flung parts of the Soviet Union, including Kyrgyzstan. This explains why Indian students, tucked away in the obscurity of Osh, have suddenly surfaced as refugees from local violence.

According to figures with the MEA, there are 6000 Indians in Russia, including 1,000 businessmen, 2000 in Ukraine, 400 in Azerbaijan, 200 in Belarus and 200 in Georgia and so on.

This journalist interviewed the first President of independent Kyrgyzstan, Askar Akaev, a bit of a “soft”, reflective philosopher surrounded by Central Asian leaders, trained in the Soviet system, hard as nails. He fell victim to the Tulip revolution in 2005, bringing Kurmanbek Bakiev as a “pro American” President. He was ousted by pro Russian interim government in April. The rest is current news.

I have already indicated the strategic location of the country which, in the context of Afghan campaign, is priceless real estate for the US which maintains the controversial Manas base in the country. This provides the cash strapped nation with much needed money. Russians too have the Kant base north of Bishkek.

Neither the US nor Russia wish to get directly embroiled for their own specific reasons.

Sonia Gandhi will remember her visit to Bishkek in 1985 when it was known by its Soviet name – Frunze, named after the military officer who was one of the architects of the Red Army.

Gorbachev and Rajiv Gandhi had both come to power in their respective countries within a space of months. During his first visit to Moscow as Prime Minister, Ambassador Nurul Hasan added Frunze to the cities the Prime Minister should visit because of its strategic importance vis-à-vis China.

On display for the visitor’s entertainment was Kyrgyz horsemanship. A Kyrgyz girl would gallop away, chased by scores of men on their stallions. The fastest had the right to kiss the girl.

Oh! How Rajiv slapped his sides and applauded every kiss, on the gallop!

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Monday, June 14, 2010

Discreet Charm of the Unconventional

Discreet Charm of the Unconventional
Saeed Naqvi
Dated: 12.06.2010

Meeting Anolie Ela Menon, the brilliant painter, reminded me of the numerous off-beat characters who were once part of my life.

But, Anjolie first: The conversation glides past Genet and Ionesco. Inevitably, Paris looms large. “Oh! How I kick myself for not drinking all that marvellous French wine those days”.

Next moment she is cradling a bleating baby goat just outside the Nizamuddin shrine with the expert ease of goatherds. In fact it is impossible to arrest Anjolie Ela Menon in one defining phrase.

In Delhi’s art circles one meets all sorts of people but there are some one would like to know more. Anjolie is distinctly in the latter category, always fluent, unaffected with those candid, sharp eyes.

But my image of her, for reasons unknown, was one of snooty cosmopolitanism until a TV interview took me to her studio located in the most cavernous by lanes which zig zag their way to the shrine of Hazrat Nizamuddin Aulia. “Ofcourse the spirit of Sufism influences me greatly.” Then after a pause “I don’t believe in religion in the conventional way”.

When she hears of famous Qawwals singing at the shrine, she does turn up for attendance clapping and swaying. How do you square this with her passion for jazz?

Just when you begin to lazily notice in her a touch of restrained bohemianism, she take you by surprise all over again.

After studying art in Paris, galavanting around the world with friends, escaping Francis Newton Souza’s advances, “I returned to marry my childhood love”, distinguished Naval officer, Raja Menon “the most well read man I know”.

The bleating goat Anjolie is playing with in the torrid sun by the side of Nizamuddin’s largest Madarsa is no artistic affectation. Walk into her studio and the nudes, the Russian priest, figures in oil are all interspersed with people carrying a goat or leading one. There is this inexplicable interest in the bleating herd.

Since Anjolie places Hussain at the lofty, iconic height as one of her early influences, one wonders if Hussain’s earliest studio in Jama Masjid’s Naaz hotel conditioned the choice of her studio. But this suggestion of imitativeness would be unfair. It would not do justice to this creative free spirit who straddles several worlds.

As I have said at the outset, she triggers old memories which ferret out other unconventional characters in such short supply these days. Anjolie is a success story; others are not. But they share one thing: they are off the beaten track. In my formative years, there were two westbound streams. One lot, creatures of civil lines and the cantonments (other than the princes) sought admission in Oxford or Cambridge. The more unconventional went not to England but to Hampstead to mingle with struggling writers, poets, playwrights, painters, politicians and professional dilettantes.

Long years ago, Yen for the off-beat led me to the high decibel invective which passed for intellectual banter in Hampstead’s populous pubs. Among the loudest was a short man with a goatie beard ranting for attention. This was my friend Sashti Brata. He was a writer of exceptional talent but short on themes.

His search for a place in the sun manifested itself in ways that constantly found him on the wrong side of the law. One of his irrepressible desires was to have a London street named after him. To realize this dream, he had carved in brass, about six inches tall, the following legend: BRATA’s CORNER. Every night this legend was nailed on the wall behind his house on Savernake Road.

The phrase “every night” in this narrative has poignant relevance. Because every morning, after having drunk a carafe of black coffee and smoked nearly a box of cigarettes, when Brata clothed himself to go behind the house to examine his immortality attached to the wall, he discovered that the Bobby on the beat had pulled out the brass letters, nail by nail. Sisyphus like, Sasthi would embark on the project again, touched not the slightest by intimations of mortality the next morning.

My hometown, Lucknow, was ofcourse, God’s own nursery for off beat people, stone broke but laughing. If you were prosperous you had to pretend to be otherwise to find entrē. Lucknow had taken its cue from classical Brahminism: intellectual life was anti wealth. But Lucknow was a city of Nawabs, you might ask. Yes, but the Nawabs themselves were more broke than most. As I have said elsewhere Lucknow’s decline began in 1856 when Wajid Ali Shah was transported to Matia Burj near Calcutta.

Among our dearest friends was one Safdar, a wit, amateur poet, racouteur who talked incessantly of the rising cost of living because his monthly budget of Rs.20 (twenty) had been exhausted ten days before the month’s end!

You had to book a table for a meal with Safdar weeks in advance. He was in such demand for his scintillating company. The most succinct observation on Safdar came from my friend Vinod Mehta, editor of Outlook. “The fellow doesn’t know where his next meal is coming from; all he knows is it will be a terrific one.”

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Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Sink the ship to stop the leak

Sink the ship to stop the leak
Saeed Naqvi
Dated: 05.06.2010

The Israeli attack on the Aid ship killing atleast 10 has, at long last, moved even Indian human rights and political groups to brave the sizzling heat and march to the Israeli embassy. It was an impressive show.

The Indian Foreign office condemned the Israeli action. After so long has the MEA been moved to anger, that the statement came as a huge relief.

Such a statement was not altogether unexpected, after External Affairs Minister, S.M. Krishna attended the meeting in Teheran last week in which President Lula of Brazil, Prime Minister Erdogan of Turkey and President Ahmedinijad of Iran signed an agreement to transfer Iran’s low enriched uranium to Turkey.

In fact all of this is only the tip of the iceberg.

On Wednesday, May 12, Turkey agreed to let Russia “build and own” a $20 billion power plant in a deal which gives an enormous new opening to Russia’s expanding energy industry.

Sergei Kiriyenko, head of Russian nuclear giant Rosatom, signed the agreement to build four reactors on Turkey’s Southern Mediterranean coast. Interestingly, the Turkish agreement is smaller than the 16 reactors Russia intends to build in India. But circumstances in which the deal was signed has imparted to it all the drama of International cut throat.

Actually, in October President Obama had mooted the idea of Iran transferring nuclear material to third countries. But the great cultural divide between Iran and the US always leaves a huge gap which neither side is willing to leap over.

Since one of the countries where Iranian fuel might have been transferred was Russia, Rosatom was in the loop from the very outset.

This, and other deals, were on the anvil at a time when American activity was touching fever pitch to contrive a tough draft for sanctions (checking of ships, for instance) announcing which Hillary Clinton was determined to have Moscow and Beijing standing behind her, their fists clenched.

Ahmedinijad and the Brazilian President met on Sunday, May 16 in Teheran, exactly a month after Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, President Lula, President Dimitry Medvedev, President Hu Jintao had all secretly discussed in Brasilia the issue of Iran nuclear fuel. The absence of Indian contribution to these deliberations must be attributed to bureaucratic modesty.

A day before the BRIC summit in Brasilia, President Lula spoke of his lack of faith in “sanctions” against Iran. He was keen to embark on a more constructive route. He discussed these issues in detail with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. (And not a question on the issue was asked at the Prime Minister’s press conference.)

Hillary’s sanctions orchestra was rising to a crescendo by Tuesday, May 18. But before the sanctions could be announced, Lula, Ahmedinijad and Erdogan punctured the project by signing an agreement Americans could not have may quarrels with. The broad outlines of the deal were, after all, part of an earlier note by President Obama. Hillary was left waving a draft which meant little.

The surprise was the choice of the destination where Iran’s nuclear fuel would be diverted – Turkey.

Iranian spiritual leader, Ali Khameini, twisted the knife further by saying: “America is angry over the proximity of independent countries like Iran and Brazil.”

It has all been a bit of an unusual drama. Here you have the Secretary of State of the World’s most powerful nation clearing her throat to announce punitive sanctions against Iran. Just then, without even a day’s time gap, Brazil, Turkey and Iran (backed by Moscow) announced a brand new deal for transfer of Iranian fuel as per an earlier suggestions made by President Obama.

It is impolite to mention such facts, but what galls nations like Israel (and a host of EU members) is the fact that the recipient of Iran’s low-grade fuel would be a “Muslim” country!

Consider this near hysterical response by the iconic columnist Indian media stars fawn over: “When I first saw the May 17 picture of Iran’s President, Mahmoud Ahmedinijad, joining his Brazilian counterpart, Luiz Inacio Lula Da Silva and the Turkish Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, with raised arms – and their signing of a putative deal to defuse the crisis over Iran’s nuclear weapons programme – all I could think of was: “is there anything uglier than watching democrats sell out other democrats to a holocaust – denying, vote-stealing Iranian thug just to tweak the US and show that they too can play at the big power table? Now that’s about as ugly as it gets.” The columnist in question happens to be God’s gift to global journalism – Tom Friedman. I would have been sacked for intemperate writing from newspapers I was trained in.

So much for Ahmedinijad. Now he turns on Lula. “Lula has been great for Brazil but terrible for his democratic neighbours”. Lula’s other faults?

“He supported the thwarting of democracy across Latin America.” He regularly praises Venezuela’s strongman Hugo Chavez and Fidel Castro, “the Cuban Dictator”.

This is the same Friedman who approved the invasion of Iraq as the greatest democratizing enterprise ever undertaken, recommended Ayatuallah Sistani for the Nobel Prize and carried messages from the state department for the Saudi King.

But such is the obsequiousness of Indian journalism that over the past two decades American and British columnists appear sometimes in four or more newspapers on the same day.

So, we have our leaders flit between Teheran, Brasilia and Washington but duck into a low profile on issues that might displease the West. Little wonder our editors publish western points of view in bold relief as our very own. It is the same tendency from top to bottom.

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