One of the highlights in the recently concluded Gujarat Assembly elections was that more than 5.5 lakh voters (1.8% of the total votes cast), chose to express their dissatisfaction against all candidates standing in the fray by pressing on the None of the Above (NOTA) button.
As per The Hindu, NOTA votes were critical in determining the outcome of about 24 constituencies. In other words, in about two dozen constituencies, the margin of victory was less than the NOTA votes. In Godhra, where the BJP wrested away power from the Congress for the first time in 15 years, the number of NOTA votes cast was 3,050, while the victor only won by 258 votes.
It was a landmark 2013 Supreme Court judgement—the People’s Union for Civil Liberties v. Union of India case—which paved the way for the introduction of NOTA.
The oft-stated argument against NOTA is that does not make any difference to electoral outcomes, and in a first-past-the-post system, it only benefits specific candidates at the expense of others.
Since its inception in 2013, the polling figures for NOTA have remained minimal. The 2015 Assembly elections in Bihar saw a 2.49% of the votes polled under NOTA, which is the highest share so far in any Assembly elections since its inception.
As per a recent study, the margin of victory was less than the NOTA votes in 261 Assembly and 24 Lok Sabha constituencies in polls conducted since 2013. Without the NOTA option, these voters would either not voted at all or would have found themselves compelled to cast their ballot in favour of one of the candidates.
Going by these figures, it looks like the Indian voter isn’t that cynical after all. Having said that, it has only been four years since the introduction of NOTA, and the arguments against its validity present a rather narrow vision of what democracy entails.
“Voting is a formal expression of will or opinion in an electoral process. Right to reject implies that a voter while voting has every right not to opt for any of the candidates during an election. Such a right implies a choice to remain neutral. This may happen when a voter feels that none of the candidates in a candidacy deserves to be elected. It happens by way of his choice, belief, thinking and expression. Right to reject has its genus in freedom of speech and expression,” argues the Association of Democratic Reforms, a non-profit working on electoral and political reforms.
It’s also a question of voter participation. What’s worse than frustration against political parties is disinterest and non-participation in the electoral process. In exercising the NOTA option, the voter is participating in the electoral process, and thus, democracy itself.
“When the political parties realize that a large number of people are expressing their disapproval with the candidates being put up by them, there will gradually be a systemic change, and the political parties will be forced to accept the will of the people and field candidates who are known for their integrity,” says the ADR note on NOTA, an idea that the Election Commission has backed since 2001.
Going by this analysis of NOTA vote trends published in The Hindu, a few patterns begin to emerge:
1) Constituencies reserved for SC and ST saw a more significant number of NOTA votes.
2) The performance of NOTA votes also sees a rise in areas affected by left-wing extremism.
3) NOTA votes are comparatively higher in constituencies where it’s a straight showdown between the two national parties—Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party.
However, NOTA will serve no real purpose if the Election Commission has not yet framed any rules on its legal status if it trumps the candidate with the highest votes. There are no rules framed under the Representation of Peoples Act to decide what happens if NOTA gets the majority of votes. If NOTA votes polled are higher than the leading candidate, the latter still prevails under current rules. There is a PIL filed by a lawyer in the Madras High Court which seeks to reverse this position.
“The Election Commission should frame rules to the effect that if NOTA gets a majority, the election held in the particular constituency shall be declared null and void and fresh election shall be conducted to the constituency. In these circumstances, the Election Commission may also frame rules stating that the candidates who fought in the earlier fray should not be allowed to contest or they should be debarred from contesting for at least some time period, as can be decided by the Election Commission,” the PIL states.
Even former chief election commissioner T S Krishnamurthy supports the idea. Speaking to the Times of India, he said: “If NOTA votes are more than the votes polled for any candidate, there should be a second round of elections with fresh candidates. Without legislative sanctions, it teaches political parties the need to nominate candidates on merit and not caste, creed or language.” One isn’t sure if political parties will follow through on this particular recommendation, but framing such rules would definitely offer better incentives for voters to exercise their NOTA vote.