By Chayanika Saxena
Notwithstanding the differences in opinion over its perceived merits and fallouts, the system of democracy has by and large found many takers across the world. India which, after almost 200 years of colonial rule, decided to adopt the democratic model, despite being cautioned against it, is an example of the resounding faith one has in the system which is ‘for the people, of the people and by the people’.
India’s experience with democracy has been relatively successful. As the world’s largest democracy whose voter base at large is composed of semi-literate-to-illiterate population, India has managed to inspire people to exercise their right to elect every time it goes to poll.
Having said so, the country’s electorate, particularly among the middle and upper classes, has also shown exhaustion with the democratic system owing to various social, political and economic reasons. Rising corruption among the political classes is one of the significant reasons for such resignation from participation in the democratic process.
To redress such grievances, electoral reforms are implemented from time-to-time, and the implementation of the None Of The Above (NOTA) option was one such step - although it has largely been symbolic in its nature with no direct bearing on the election result.
NOTA in its present format was introduced in India following the 2013 Supreme Court directive in the People’s Union for Civil Liberties v. Union of India judgment. It is important to note that NOTA existed before this judgment as well, although the option, as per rule 49-O of Conduct of Election Rules, required the voters to register their option of NOTA in a register compromising the secrecy of the ballot.
Following the 2013 verdict, NOTA was interpreted as the right to a negative vote under freedom of expression, as envisaged in Article 21. Subsequently, the Election Commission introduced NOTA on the EVM (and ballot paper) to ensure voter secrecy.
India is the 14th country in the world to have adopted the NOTA system -- the list includes Bangladesh, France and the US, among others. Going by the alternative names of ‘against all’ or ‘scratch vote’, this polling option was first mooted in 1976 and introduced for the first time in the US state of Nevada in 1978, with the possible implications ranging from having the office remain vacant, having the office filled by appointment, re-opening nominations or holding another election (in a body operating under parliamentary procedure) to no effect whatsoever, as in India and the US state of Nevada, where the next highest total wins regardless.
NOTA button on the EVMs was first introduced in the 2013 Assembly elections held in five states -- Chhattisgarh, Delhi, Madhya Pradesh, Mizoram and Rajasthan -- debuting at 1.85 per cent of the total votes polled. In the 2014 general election, NOTA polled 1.1 per cent of the votes, counting to over 6,000,000 in number. A specific symbol was assigned to NOTA option on the Electronic Voting Machines (EVM) and the Ballot Paper -- a ballot paper with a black cross as NOTA option besides the list of candidates - in 2015. The recent Assembly elections in 5 states in the month of March 2017 saw as many as 9 lakh voters choose the NOTA option over any candidate.
Various trends and patterns have emerged since then, indicating, among other things, ‘disaffection with the candidates in the political fray’. Since the effect of this vote is rather symbolic in the first-past-the-post-system that is followed in India, NOTA has not been able to stem the tide of electoral disenchantment, although it is being increasingly used instead of active boycotting of the polls.
Polling patterns have also revealed that the casting of NOTA ballot is contingent upon caste biases, disaffection with the state on the whole (like in areas affected by Left-wing extremism) and disenchantment with mainstream political parties especially when they are the only ones in the electoral battle.
Given that NOTA option does not affect the outcome of elections, it has often been asked as to what is the rationale behind its introduction. The intent, according to the Supreme Court bench that made it mandatory for the inclusion of NOTA in Indian elections, is to morally compel political parties to field candidates with clean image. While the impact of this intent has not been significantly felt, NOTA is certainly one step forward in the direction of fulfilling the fundamental commitments the Indian constitution has made to the citizens.
Apart from effectively being an ‘invalid vote’, there is a flip-side to NOTA polling as well -- its availability has discouraged voters to review the candidates by opting for a simpler option that NOTA appears to be. NOTA has the potential of intensifying voters’ passivity by giving them the right to reject when they should rather be encouraged to actively weigh the merits of each candidate for informed participation in the elections.
It can also discourage ‘good’ candidates further as invalid votes do not affect the fortunes of the prospective winner regardless of his/her image since NOTA is essentially a rejection of all candidates. So, the one who wins by resorting to unfair means will still have the chance to win in a NOTA poll since the polling of NOTA does not chip at his/her chances of winning the elections.
*This article had first appeared in India Review and Analysis, Volume 1, Issue 5.
(Chayanika Saxena is a Research Associate at the Society for Policy Studies, New Delhi. Comments and suggestions on this article can be sent to email@example.com)