First things first. I wrote this paper originally in 2003, just before the MP assembly elections were to happen. The Congress Chief Minister Digvijay Singh had thrown open challenge (yet again) that he would win against all odds, just like he had surprised everyone 5 years back.
But before you go on to read this article, you should understand one basic difference between the Paper Ballot and EVM that is critical to get the context. In Paper ballot, the voter is asked to put the mark against his/her selected candidate and put the ballot in ballot box. By law, there should be only one candidate selected and there should not be more than one mark on the ballot paper, or any other mark, anywhere on the ballot paper.
If any ballot was having more than one mark anywhere on that ballot, then that ballot was considered “Invalid” and taken out of the counting process. In such a case, during the counting of votes, the power of deciding which candidate should get that “invalid” vote or should that vote be discarded altogether, was totally in the hands of “Returning Officers”. In India the “Returning Officers” are generally the DMs of that district, and it was very normal practice for Political Parties in power to place their “favorable” DM in the areas which were supposed to see very close contest.
Now during the counting, the counting agents of different political parties use to keep a keen eye to dispute oppositions vote as invalid, if they used to see even slightest of second mark anywhere on the Paper Ballot. The “Favorable” DM being the précising officer, could very well accept doubtful votes of ruling party and reject the doubtful votes of opposition parties. The decision of the “Returning Officer” was taken as final even in the courts. Generally speaking, this did not make much of a difference if the any party was winning with big margin, but if the contest was close, then it made it a matter of life and death. And needless to say, the party in power (all the parties) used to misuse this influence. Even though legally the ECI was supposed to transfer such partisan officers, but it was not known to be a very common practice till then. So, this was a much sophisticated systematic abuse by ruling parties, in comparison to the crude from of Booth Capturing.
Enter EVM, and these two flaws of the Ballot paper were gone. First, the EVM does not have any invalid vote. You press a button and vote is recorded. There is no scope of pushing two buttons on EVM. Secondly, the much notorious “Booth Capturing” was stopped, simply because each vote in EVM is “issued” by the controlling unit with election officer. So the “ease” of simply snatching the entire bunch of ballots, stamping them, and then stuffing them in Ballot box was the most convenient practice of that time.
Alternatively, in the polling booths where opposition parties were supposed to have big number of supporters, the strategically placed officers on duty for the ruling party could sprinkle ink in the ballot box, thus rendering most of those polled votes as “invalid” when the counting started. And remember, the returning officer was the final authority to accept or reject such votes.
Apart from this, the invalid votes had become a tool of ‘managing’ the elections and also a major point of controversies. One can learn from the example of 1998 assembly elections in Madhya Pradesh, where the party in power won a simple majority of 172 in a house of 320 seats. The surprising factor was that in about 35 of these seats, the margin of victory was less than the total number of invalid votes!!! Now with the EVMs any possibility of such controversy is over.
Innumerable number of PhD theses could be written if you just go through these systematic malpractices that Political parties and powerful candidates in power used to adopt just to win the election again and again and again. No wonder that till 1998 more than 90% of election verdict were “Pro-Incumbent”. But right after the induction of EVM, more than 90% of election verdicts have been anti-incumbent.
Keeping these in mind, I picked up the 1998 Madhya Pradesh election as case study.
In 1998 all the assessments were expecting a victory for the BJP in Madhya Pradesh due to routine anti-incumbency, but it was the Congress that emerged triumphant. The state was still undivided, and after all the 320-member assembly declared, the ruling Congress party had won 175 seats and the BJP was a distant second with 118 seats. The Bahujan Samaj Party won 11 seats, matching its strength in the outgoing assembly. Several top BJP leaders, including former chief minister Kailash Joshi and Vikram Verma, leader of the Opposition in the state assembly, drowned at the Digvijay Singh surprise victory. More importantly, The Congress CM has said well in advance, that the elections are won my “Management”. And boy, he did prove everyone wrong, by overcoming the huge anti-incumbency against him and pulled off a miracle. Yup, it was nothing short of a miracle.
Final Tally:
After being ahead in 220 assembly constituencies in just a few months back in February 1998 Lok Sabha election, most of the BJP's traditional strongholds fell to the Congress. The BJP could win only 45 per cent of the seats in Chhattisgarh (where it expected to win most of the region's 90 seats), 35 per cent of the seats in Madhya Bharat and 43 per cent of the seats in the Mahakaushal region. Only in the Gwalior and Vindyachal regions did the BJP do better than the Congress.
In Chhattisgarh, the Congress secured 46 of the 90 seats while the BJP was far behind with 33 seats. The Congress captured 124 of the 230 at stake outside the Chhattisgarh region as against the BJP's 103. Old Bhopal was the only region in the state where the BJP secured better results. The BJP won eight of the 12 seats in the state capital and its adjoining areas. The Congress won four, wresting two pretigious seats -- Bhopal North and Bhopal South -- from the BJP. The region-wise break-up shows that the Congress won 58 of the total 99 seats in the Madhya Bharat region, against 33 by the BJP, six by the Bahujan Samaj Party and two by others. In the Mahakaushal region, the ruling Congress bagged 45 of the total 76 seats at stake. The BSP failed to open its account in the region. The Congress captured 17 of the 43 seats in the Vindhya region, against 15 by the BJP.
Just one per cent of the vote separated the BJP from the Congress -- 40 to 39 percent -- but in Madhya Pradesh, a one per cent swing was enough to ensure victory. The anti-incumbency factor, which the BJP was counting on heavily, did not work in the state. This, political analysts feel, is because the Congress negated it by refusing tickets to many sitting MLAs who did not have a 'positive image'. The BJP, on the other hand, awarded tickets to many of its sitting MLAs .
1998 assembly polls:
Number of invalid votes: 4,60,000 (about 2%)
Seats 320; thus 1500 votes on an average for each assembly seat. There were about 4000 “missing votes” as well in the state.
The “Invalid” factor in Digvijay magic
Remember, in 1998, India was still voting on Ballot Papers. The ECI had not introduced the EVM. In that context, the factor, which actually worked for the Congress, was the factor of the invalid votes. Digvijay Singh “managed” to win 35 tight seats where the margin of victory was lass than the number of ‘rejected’ or the ‘invalid’ votes.
For example, take the case of Keskal assembly segment. Here the Congress won by a margin of just 343 votes, but the number of ‘rejected votes’ or the ‘invalid votes’ was as high as 2561 after the final “recounting” and “adjustment” of these votes. Till the penultimate round the number of such votes happened to be around 3000, which shows how much the last round of “recounting” had tilted the result in favour of the Congress candidate. Same was in the case of Dhar.
Another example is Konta assembly segment. Here the Congress won by a margin of just 748 votes, but the number of ‘rejected votes’ or the ‘invalid votes’ was as high as 2906. This “recounting adjustment” was “valid” in 35 assembly seats where the “invalid votes” finally decided the winner. The number of ‘rejected votes’ or the ‘invalid votes’ are normally low after the final “recounting” and “adjustment” of these votes. Till the penultimate round the number of such votes happened to be high, which shows how much the last round of “recounting” tilt the result in favor of certain candidate.
The number of invalid votes has always been very high in MP elections. If the trend of such votes is analyzed, we find that the in the decade of nineties when there were in all 7 elections (three assembly and 4 lok sabha elections), the 1998 elections had the least number of rejected votes.

This actually indicates that 1998 assembly elections witnessed the best “management” of such votes in the electoral history of MP. What was more fascinating is the fact that all these seats were very well scattered and they could not for a “typical geographic cluster”, which could have shown any deviations in a computer data analysis at the regional scale. Hence the losing candidates could not put up a collective objection to this “validity of the valid votes” or should we say “invalidity of the valid votes”.
Digvijay Singh was right. He knew the art of managing the elections well. He did manage to win not 1, not 2, but a big tally of 35 such seats and that resulted in him becoming the CM once again.
Now imagine what would have been the results, if the phenomenon of invalid votes had been absent in the 1998 elections. The Opposition would have got a clear majority and after the formation of Chattisgarh, the lead of Opposition in Madhya Pradesh would have been further increased.
What Changed in 2003?
ECI said electronic voting machines (EVMs) would be used in all the 41,000 polling booths in the next Assembly elections in the state. So, the option of the “invalid votes” was be no more.
Not only that, the voters were be required to carry some sort of identification, be it photo identity cards or any other document specified by the EC. Without photo identity the voter was not be allowed to vote and they had courts permission for this arrangement. This negated the option of “increased voter list” because the person in the list had to come up with a proper photo id.
It is important to note, that when in 2003 the EVM were introduced, the number of “Invalid Votes” dropped down to Zero. And this resulted in zero manipulation in all these close seats where invalid votes were the key factor. There was no scope left for Mr. Digvijay Singh to “Manage” the election anymore. And needless to say that this resulted in acute loss of Congress in ALL those seats where were in question mark due the equation of invalid votes.
The "Invalid Syndrome" is valid even for Lok Sabha
Invalid votes made all the difference in 69 constituencies in 1998 lok sabha polls. Blame it on voters' illiteracy or plain, simple antipathy, or “official management”, but invalid votes were a factor to be reckoned with in as many as 69 Lok Sabha constituencies, where it outstripped even the winning margin of candidates!
Typifying this dubious phenomenon was Rajmahal constituency in Bihar where Bharatiya Janata Party candidate Bom Marandi defeated his nearest Congress rival by just nine votes, while the number of invalid votes cast was a whopping 10,432. A prominent victim of invalid votes, which are otherwise scrap-heaps of wasted ballot paper, was former deputy prime minister and Haryana Lok Dal nominee Devi Lal who lost the election in Rohtak to his Congress rival by 303 votes. The number of invalid votes in this constituency was 8,225.
Yet another cliff-hanger was witnessed in Tirupattur constituency in Tamil Nadu, where the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam candidate managed to win by a margin of 274 votes. The number of invalid votes polled here was 25,250.
According to analysts, had these invalid votes been properly cast, the outcome could well have been different in all the constituencies. Of the 69 constituencies where invalid votes played a crucial role, Uttar Pradesh accounts for 11, folowed by Maharashtra (eight), Tamil Nadu (seven), Andhra Pradesh and Gujarat (six each), Bihar , Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan (five each), West Bengal and Karnataka (three each), Assam, Haryana and Kerala (two each) and Goa, Mizoram, Punjab and Andaman and Nicobar (one each).
The two major beneficiaries of invalid votes were the BJP and the Congress. While the BJP romped home in 21 of the 69 constituencies, the Congress did so in 20. Incidentally, the two parties were also the major victims of this phenomenon, with the Congress and the BJP losing in 24 and 18 seats respectively out of the 69.
For instance, the BJP lost the election in Andaman and Nicobar to the Congress by 544 votes while the number of invalid votes here was 1,850. However, the party's lone Muslim candidate, Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi from Rampur, defeated his Congress rival by 4,936 votes -- even though the number of invalid votes cast here was 9,510. A prominent Congress loser was former Union minister Santosh Mohan Deb who lost to the BJP candidate in Assam's Silchar constituency by 19,566 votes -- while a whopping 25,957 votes were declared invalid.
Similarly, BJP heavyweight Vinay Katiyar had the mortification of losing the Faizabad seat to Mitrasen Yadav of the Samajwadi party by 7.737 votes; the invalid votes cast was close to 11,000.
In Nandyal, once the constituency of former prime minister P. V. Narasimha Rao, Telugu Desam Party candidate Bhuma Magi Reddy defeated the Congress candidate by 4,650 votes -- the number of invalid votes cast stood at 10,287.
The introduction of Electronic Voting Machines (EVM) has been one of the most important changes that have been introduced in the Indian electoral process over the last fifty years. The EVMs were introduced with the prime objective on cutting down expenses incurred in the procurement and printing of ballot papers and the also to cut down on the time spent on counting of ballot papers.
In addition to this, one of the biggest benefits from the introduction of EVMs has been the fact that the number of invalid votes has been reduced to zero in this format as the voter’s preferences are recorded only once. Unlike ballot papers, where a considerable number of voters put their stamp near the line dividing two candidates, the choice of the voter is reflected with clarity, eliminating the possibility of manipulation at the counting level.
Apart from this, the invalid votes had become a tool of ‘managing’ the elections and also a major point of controversies. One can learn from the example of 1998 assembly elections in Madhya Pradesh, where the party in power won a simple majority courtesy those 35 seats, where the margin of victory was less than the total number of invalid votes. Now with the EVMs any possibility of such controversy is over. In in the rural areas the booth capturing has become nullified, as the EVMs can’t be captured. Even if captured, it is extremely difficult to use them for large scale bogus voting as only one vote is released at one point of time by the returning officer. While in the traditional paper ballot system it was easy for to capture the entire bundle of ballot papers, mark them ‘en mass’ and put them easily in the ballot boxes.
Now the controversy is on how the EVM could be tempered and the recent allegations of opposition parties that the BJP has won recent UP election by tempering the EVMs. Never mind the fact that these parties have themselves won state election in last 24 months using the same EVMs. The critical question is: Can the EVMs be hacked and manipulated. The clear answer is: NO. There are so many checks and balances not just in the machine, but also in the entire process of ECI, that a systematic hacking is next to impossible. May be I would write a separate piece on that entire process to explain that. But at this moment remember the thumb rule: those who in power try to abuse the system to remain in power. And when any system results in more than 90% anti-incumbent verdicts; it means only one thing: that the people in power are unable to abuse it. Like they used to abuse the paper ballot, and more than 90% election verdicts then used to result in pro-incumbent verdict. Think about it, and you will get the valid answer from the invalid votes.