NOTA is an Option

Published November 11, 2013

India’s Supreme Court has presented the country’s voters with an option few had thought possible at election time.

By a judgement delivered on September 27, the Court ordered the Election Commission to make a “necessary provision in the ballot papers/EVMs [electronic voting machines] and another button called ‘None of the Above’ (NOTA) may be provided in EVMs so that the voters, who come to the polling booth and decide not to vote for any of the candidates in the fray, are able to exercise their right not to vote while maintaining their right of secrecy.”

Implicitly, the judgement recognises the right of the individual voter not to vote for any candidate in the fray. In a sense, the Court has guaranteed the people’s right to express no-confidence in a bunch of candidates seeking election.

“For democracy to survive, it is essential that the best available men should be chosen as people’s representatives ... in a vibrant democracy, the voter must be given an opportunity to choose none of the above (NOTA) button, which will indeed compel the political parties to nominate a sound candidate. This situation palpably tells us the dire need of negative voting,” the Court argued.

The Court is of the opinion that when political parties realised that a large number of voters say no to their candidates, there will be a “systemic change” and political parties will be forced to “field candidates who are known for their integrity”.

It argued that previously the disenchanted chose not to vote, making it possible for impersonation to take place. NOTA, the Court believed, would provide an incentive for the voter to turn up and cast a negative vote.

As a follow-up to the verdict, India’s Election Commission clarified that notwithstanding NOTA, the candidate who received the highest number of votes would be declared elected.

“Therefore, even if the number of electors opting for NOTA option is more than the number of votes polled by any of the candidates, the candidate who secures the largest number of votes has to be declared elected,” the Commission said in a press note.

Whether or not political parties, who are known to choose candidates for their “win-ability”, often a euphemism for caste and religious appeal, as well as money and muscle power, change is an open question, but NOTA does present interesting options.

The Supreme Court is hoping that if a significant number of votes to say NOTA in the polls, the pressure will come on political parties to select candidates with integrity.

In Jammu & Kashmir, as Riyaz Wani wrote in this piece for Tehelka, there is a flip side to the NOTA debate.

“I think the Right to Reject merits a serious consideration. We need to deliberate on it ... If people have the choice to reject contesting candidates, it gives the people of Kashmir a chance to tell the world where we stand,” Kashmiri leader Mirwaiz Umer Farooq was quoted as saying in the article.

And, as can be expected, there are other politicians in Jammu & Kashmir, who feel that NOTA isn’t just a good idea.

As the debate continues in Kashmir, NOTA goes ahead elsewhere – when the votes are counted for the upcoming state assembly elections in Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Delhi and Mizoram on December 9 – we will have a count for None of the Above for the first time ever.

Given the number of persons with criminal background in the country’s politics, NOTA’s working will be closely watched to see whether the Supreme Court’s hopes for a “systemic change” are realised.

NOTA would have done its job if it can lead even to a partial change in the attitude of political parties in India.

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