Does NOTA guarantee what its founders envisaged?

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On 27th September 2018, the Supreme Court of India ruled that the right to register a “none of the above” vote in elections should apply and ordered the Election Commission to provide such a button in the electronic voting machines, observing that it would increase participation.

Since the introduction of none of the above (NOTA) option, one Lokh sabha election and a number of Assembly elections have taken place in India. A look at the NOTA vote shares in these elections reveal some interesting facts. Assembly elections held in various states in 2013, NOTA, in its inaugural year constituted 1.85% of the total votes polled. In 2014, in the Assembly elections held in 8 states, the NOTA share dropped to 0.95%. It increased to 2.02% in 2015 Assembly elections held in Bihar and Delhi. However, in 2016 Assembly elections despite widespread active canvassing for exercising the option by some groups and organizations in Kerala and Tamil Nadu, NOTA vote share dropped again to 1.6%.

The above statistics as well as a research paper brought out by Garima Goel of Kings College, London finds significant regional variations in NOTA voting in India. There is also a clear cluster of NOTA votes in certain areas. Initially NOTA voting had been expected to be more prevalent in urban and more literate areas. However, the patterns of NOTA voting showed that this is not the case. Voting patterns of 20 assembly elections between October 2013 and May 2016, Goel finds that the proportions of NOTA voters are highest in India’s tribal belts, and within these areas NOTA voting is highest in ST reserved constituencies. NOTA voting was also seen predominant in areas suspected to be infected with left wing extremism. Another reason for NOTA voting being higher in rural areas with fewer literate voters, could be mistakes committed due to ignorance. There is also no strong association between NOTA voting with either higher voter turnout or increased criminality in elections.

The Assembly constituencies of Gadchiroli, Jhagram, Kalyan Rural, Jagannathpur, Chatra, Umarkote and Chhattarpur figured in the list of top NOTA polling constituencies in the Assembly elections of 2014. The NOTA left the parties like Congress and NCP red faced in Naxal affected Gadchiroli Constituency in Maharashtra. The NOTA option was second highest after BJP’s Dr. Deorao Holi in many rounds in the initial stages of counting before NCP’S Bhagyasree Atram regained the second slot. The significant figure of 17,510 votes captured by NOTA surprised the poll pundits. Even the Congress candidate Saguna Talandi ended up reeling behind NOTA. Likewise, 5 out of 11 loksabha constituencies in Chhattisgarg NOTA stood third in 2014 elections. In Bastar Loksabha constituency, a hotbed of Naxal activities, 38,772 votes went to NOTA.

These figures (from Naxal affected/ST constituencies) show that the voters have taken NOTA more as an instrument to register their protest than the disapproval of candidates or the democratic system at large. Having said that, let’s understand that the NOTA polling figures are very small so far. NOTA haven’t crossed 2.02% of the total votes polled in any elections held after its introduction to India’s electoral system. And to add further, the perceived cynicism against the political class is much exaggerated. The negative voting here, on a broader perspective, remains insignificant.

In most countries, if NOTA or “against all” option received majority or plurality of vote on an election, a scenario of re-election or reopening of nominations is guaranteed. However, NOTA in India does not provide a “right to reject” provision. In India, the candidate with the maximum number of votes wins the election irrespective of the number of NOTA votes polled.

To conclude, I must stress on the fact that this electoral option is meaningless if the negative voting doesn’t guarantee the “right to reject”. Hence this option largely remains as a symbolic instrument to express resentment or to register protest. Furthermore, if the right to reject option comes into reckoning in its practical form, it could lead to a number of re-elections. Re-elections are wastage of money and time consuming and could lead, on the long run, to nothing but chaos.

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