By Abhishek Gaurav
Edited by, Namrata Caleb, Associate Editor, The Indian Economist
None of the Above, or NOTA as it is popularly known, was included by the Election Commission as a legitimate option on EVMs and Ballot papers following an order by the Supreme Court of India in September last year. NOTA was hailed as one of the most significant electoral reforms that was long overdue. Now that the option has been exercised in state elections last year and the general elections this year, its impact on electoral politics is gradually becoming clearer. The Supreme Court of India while directing the Election Commission to provide such an option to the voters made two interesting observations. One, that NOTA or, negative voting as it is usually called in electoral parlance, would compel political parties to put up moral and ethical candidates. This is a debatable point. Experience shows that moral pressure may not be the most effective thing when it comes to political parties. The number of candidates with serious criminal charges pending against them has only been rising in the parliament. In the last Loksabha, the number of such candidates, by their own admission of affidavit, was 162 and this has now gone up to 186. Doesn’t this strike a bit odd, that every one out of the three elected members of the apex political platform of our country is an alleged serious criminal! Secondly, the Supreme Court mentioned that this would help to address the concern of voter apathy in urban areas. A conscientious voter, according to the Supreme Court, should register his protest, if that is what he intends to, by exercising the option of none of the above in polling stations. It is, indeed, ironical that people in their drawing rooms criticize the government and politicians without actually participating in their election process. This is certainly not acceptable in a responsible democracy and it is high time that we stopped paying lip service. It is better that one goes and gets his opinion registered even if it is a negative opinion, regardless of whether it has electoral value. It is the participation that should matter, in the end.
For those who thought that NOTA could significantly alter the election results are in for a disappointment, though, because even if 99 out of 100 voters exercise NOTA, the candidate receiving the single vote shall be deemed the winner. Thus, its impact on election verdict seems a far-fetched dream, though, it may well be the first step towards empowering voters with the right to reject. The Election Commission has been demanding such a provision from as early as 2001. The motive was primarily to guard the secrecy of candidates who wish to boycott all the candidates standing for election. Earlier, during the ballot paper regime, the voter could do so only in the knowledge of the presiding officer. In the EVM era, too, there was no mechanism in place to register the negative opinion of the voter without avoiding reprisals. NOTA, in a way seeks to amend this lacuna. One may argue, that democracy is all about electing candidates, and that it should not come to mean rejecting them in any way. But then, democracy also entails accommodating opinions of all the citizens, whether in favour of a candidate or otherwise, which is what NOTA has tried to ensure partly by its induction into the voting process. A similar analogy can be seen in our parliament where we have the yes vote, no vote and also a vote of abstention. Thus, negative vote, like abstention, is an opinion which should be part of the electoral practice in accordance with our fundamental right of the freedom of expression.
The right to reject, infact, may not be all that practical for a vast country as ours with hundreds of elections at different levels in a large number of constituencies. Re-elections, resulting from the exercise of right to reject, would themselves involve huge costs, both in terms of resources and manpower. Vital public utilities like schools, security forces and government staff would need to be diverted away from their usual chores. During the model code of conduct period which comes into effect 45 days prior to the polling day in case of parliamentary elections, the government is not allowed to announce any new programs or policies pertaining to the constituency. A lot of things, thus, may come to a standstill. It is these downsides of the right to reject that have discouraged the Election Commission or the Supreme Court to seriously consider the plea of including it in the electoral practice.
In light of the above arguments, NOTA, in its present form, is simply a tool in ensuring that some degree of probity in public life be brought about and political parties be morally pressurized to weed out criminality from politics. But if it has to have more legal connotations, more fundamental changes in the political and the electoral system may have to be set in motion. Despite this, NOTA does give a platform to the voters to be more participative in the electoral process. After all, we cannot just love democracy but hate politicians.
Abhishek Gaurav is a B.S. – M.S. dual degree student in Economics at IIT Kanpur. He has a prior experience with the development economics centric research arm of MIT, Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL), primarily working in the area of evidence based policies. His interests lie at the intersection of economics, politics, policy and finance. He can be reached at: [email protected]