NOTA stays to fine-tune Indian democracy

NOTA

The “None Of The Above” (NOTA) button, the newly introduced mechanism in the polling process in India, drew 1.1% of country’s total vote share in Lok Sabha Election 2014. Interestingly NOTA secured more number of votes than those secured by the non-Congress, non-BJP parties put together, confirming that the option has swept the Indian voters and that it is here to stay to redefine the country’s election process in the future.

Bihar, Tamil Nadu, West Bengal and Gujarat witnessed sizeable NOTA votes in most of the constituencies. Surprisingly states like Punjab, Haryana and Delhi where voter awareness is considered better than many other states had less NOTA share. The lower number of NOTA share in these states may be attributed to the fact that people had a better choice of candidates here, so they did not have to think of a “nil” alternative.

The direct relation between NOTA figure and the profile of candidates was evident in many constituencies. For example, NOTA got half a lakh counts in Nilgiris where A Raja, involved in 2G scam, was fielded. The number of NOTA option in Jammu and Kashmir was 1.32 per cent of the total polled votes. Despite having Modi wave, 1.8% of Gujarat voters used NOTA button. In Puducherry, 3 per cent of voters preferred the button.

NOTA

Some naxal affected areas also marked high votes towards NOTA. As many as 31 constituencies in Tamil Nadu, 23 in Gujarat, 32 in West Bengal, 16 in Rajasthan, 19 in Madhya Pradesh, 12 in Odisha and 15 seats in Bihar polled more than ten thousand NOTA votes. Lakshadweep, which recoded 123 votes in favour of NOTA, contributed for the least NOTA share in this LS election.

NOTA gave voters a chance to secretly record and make public their displeasure against the contentious candidates. NOTA is neither a reject vote nor a negative vote, as some people termed it. In no way, it gives the voter the ‘the right to reject’ the candidates, but gives the voter the right to register a negative opinion about them in the form of no-votes. In no way, it means all candidates in a constituency stand rejected or defeated even though the number of NOTA votes exceeds the vote count of the highest vote-gatherer. Rather its count serves as a credible barometer to gauge the voters’ view of the contesting candidates.

NOTA, in no way, affects election results, but it would put pressure on political parties to nominate good candidates in future. Voting for NOTA almost equals the process of putting into the ballot box a blank slip or a deliberately spoiled ballot paper, which got counted but with no impact on the election outcome.

Through this non-legal political process of NOTA voting, a voter can help the system prevent the criminalization of politics, corruption, and abuse of power by political functionaries. It provides no quick fix solution, but allows the voter’s opinion about the candidates to do the rounds. If NOTA is utilized in the right sense, it can help cleanse Indian elections substantially.

It was after emergency Indian democracy, breaking from the shackles of the shadow of the British rule, stood on its own leg. The period brought in a leadership that was unintellectual, power hungry or egotistic which brought down Indian polity to hopeless new lows except during brief interludes. This has forced the judiciary, in tandem with Election Commission, to explore the gaps in electoral laws and plug the gap through some judicial initiatives. NOTA verdict was one such initiative. The verdicts on decriminalization of politics, bringing political parties under RTI etc are other such initiatives.

A NOTA voter is not a negative voter but is one who prefers to build the democracy beyond its performance rituals. It allows him to take part in voting but gives the power to abstain from effective voting while expressing disapproval of the candidates. More number of NOTA votes signals a reminder to the political parties that they should field better candidates. It indicates that the candidate who won the election does not have the representation of the NOTA voters. If NOTA gets more votes than the elected candidate it would be a lash on the parties fielded the candidates. The voter who knows closely the criminal background of the candidates can vote for NOTA to indicate his/her displeasure.

If NOTA gets a majority of the polled votes, it is better to conduct a re-election. Then, that will lead to a natural refinement of democracy. In such a scenario, the political parties will not dare to field unpopular candidates. NOTA provides Indian voters a chance to rebuild the electoral process. Today voters are educated about the profile of the candidates through various media like newspapers, television, social media and banners. In such a scenario NOTA plays a better role. In short, NOTA can sustain lasting values to make Indian democracy healthy.

While NOTA is a substantive step towards Indian election reforms, its power has not yet been unleashed fully. It needs to be refined further. One way to expand the voters’ choice is to introduce an additional negative vote button against each candidate in the existing voting machine. This allows a voter to cast either a positive vote or negative vote against a candidate as well in addition if she does not want to vote for either any candidate or NOTA. This will expand the voters’ choice to record a negative vote to any of the candidate. A voter should have only one vote and she can use it either to record a positive vote or negative vote against a candidate or to choose NOTA. Whether to give value to the negative vote is to be decided. It will work fine even without any value assigned to it.

Despite having NOTA, the condition of the Indian voter is pathetic. He is forced mostly to vote for the wrong candidate just to avoid the more wrong one from getting in through the first-past-the-post system of election which we follow now. So, electoral reforms are inevitable.

One better electoral proposal we need to consider is the proportional system of voting by single transferrable vote. In a proportional system, the number of seats won by a party or group of candidates is proportionate to the number of votes the party received.The Hare System, List System and Alternative Voting are the commonly known variants of the proportional system. In the system, each government area will be a multi-member constituency. The voter will have one effective vote, but can mark his relative preference for other candidates. Each candidate will have to get a proportional quota of votes to get elected. This system is being followed in the cooperative society elections and university senate elections. Former Chief Election Commissioner T S Krishnamurthy and some organisations recommended alternative voting system for India. Israel follows the list system.

The advantage of the proportional voting system is that a section of voters living anywhere in a particular voting area can mobilize a proportional percentage of votes and elect a particular candidate.So minority groups/factions of people can get due representation easily in this system of election. The elected members elected though this system will be free from engaging in the parochial exercise of constituency building.It will also set aside the possibility of a party or coalition winning an election without getting a majority of votes in a multi-cornered polity like India.

The NOTA proposed by the Election Commission in the year 1999 took 12 years to materialize thorough a judicial remedy. The then UPA government had opposed the NOTA but the BJP, then in opposition, welcomed it. Now, the BJP is in power in India. This is the time we should go further with electoral reforms.

K Rajasekharan

K Rajasekharan is a law graduate from Kerala Law Academy at Thiruvananthapuram. He also holds M Lib Sc., M.A. (Sociology) & M.A. Politics, and currently works at the Kerala Institute of Local Administration in Thrissur. Rajasekharan is well versed in topics like decentralization, local governance and related areas at the national level.