The reach and penetration of globalization has made this big world a small place to live in. The world is becoming more and more economically integrated and economic interests are shaping the pattern of relations between nations. And India is applying itself clinically and emphatically to the opportunities and challenges presented by this scenario. But India’s growing stature as an economic powerhouse is not backed up by an equally competent and quality political setup. Mark Acton’s remark “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely” aptly describes the true character of our political class. Cash-for-vote scandals, cash-for-question scandals are some of the recent examples which demonstrate the abysmal low Indian politics has reached. Indian parliament and state legislative assemblies have become the actual battleground of our representatives to settle their scores. They fight like hooligans, throw mikes at each other and use unparliamentarily language without any shame and that too with the whole nation watching them on television screens. But the question that arises here is what the citizens of this country can do to restore the sanctity of parliament, the institution of politics and stop this criminal wastage of tax payer’s money on our useless politicians who openly murder the faith and expectations of the people. As a voter, we have to vote for a Lalu Yadav, Shibu Soren, Mayawati, Jayalalitha because we have no right to dissent with our so-called leaders. Frankly, it’s not a choice but a compromise with a situation which is suffocating and simply not acceptable to human conscience. We have to shed the tag of a “Stupid Common Man”, a man who just watches helplessly and silently to every injustice committed against him. As Indians we have to understand the value of freedom, value of rights because it had taken more than 200 years for us to achieve these things. Freedom to reject or right of negative voting will ensure that our support does not go to any rapist or killer but to a person who can lead India out of its shortcomings and can understand what it takes for a nation to be free in true sense.
RIGHT OF NEGATIVE VOTING
Over six decades ago, India had its post- colonial “tryst with destiny. The nation’s soul, long suppressed, found utterance”. Departing naysayers of the Raj claimed that India would not survive as a nation. But today, as the global community watches in awe and respect, India is showing how big a leveller democracy could be in a country as diverse as she is and also how democracy is our best bet for a world torn by hatred, dogmatism, intolerance and terrorism.
This vibrant Indian democracy, which has withstood the trials of time, owes its existence entirely to the active participation of millions of Indians in a process which begins with the casting of a vote by a person for his preferred candidate and culminates in the formation of a government which, by virtue of being mandated by people to rule, becomes responsible for the affairs of the whole nation and can be held accountable for its actions and inactions. The statutory right of voting determines the willingness of the majority of the citizens of the country to abide by a particular quality of rule, a rule which people deem fit to govern them. But it is a fact that the majority’s decision is necessarily not the best decision that we can have .Worse, it can be diametrically opposite to the most correct decision possible. India, as a young nation in 1947, played a sort of gamble when it took the bold decision of granting voting right to its every adult citizen irrespective of regional, linguistic, and caste cleavages. It was an audacious decision because in the extremely fragile and sensitive socio-political climate of the country at that time, it envisioned an integrated India where Indians will foster shared stake holding in unity due to their equality in choosing their government. Well, that gamble paid off and today India can proudly boast itself as the world’s greatest and one of the most inclusive democracy. But still there was one risk associated with that gamble which was enigmatically overlooked by the policy-makers at that time was the vulnerability of this voting right to exploitation by unscrupulous elements. Poor and unprivileged people seek solace in the hollow promises and false words of these morally bankrupt politicians in the belief that they have the panacea for all the ills that have inflicted their lives. And if this were not enough, then the political class also does not mind playing the murky caste and communal politics and thus promotes the culture of hate, enmity, intolerance etc. where the virtues of a liberal state such as love, tolerance and harmony die a slow and steady death. Time and again citizens of this country have become disillusioned with its leaders.
But the ‘sab chalta hai’ attitude of we Indians have made us ‘used-to’ every situation whether it is bomb blasts, corruption or deteriorating law and order. Often the onus of this sorry state is put on the burgeoning middle class, educated and empowered citizens. They are blamed for shunning their responsibility by not participating substantially in elections to choose a good government. To certain extent, the allegation made here may be correct. But it is not true that educated people are totally disenchanted with the power of democracy as the facilitators of progress of the country. Neither are they undermining their capability as individuals or as a group to vote for accountable governance, inclusive growth and as Amartya Sen so memorably put it -‘development as freedom’. But the problem in present times is that the most undeserving candidates are vying for one the most deserving post of the society i.e. of a leader. Gone are the days when Indian politics was all about principles and used to be the domain of statesmen and scholars. Today majority of so called representatives of people are criminals and money grabbing people who flagrantly flout the laws of the land to serve their own selfish and sordid purposes. The politically conscious citizens and intellectual class is finding it hard to accept the fact that the affairs of this country is managed by such people who are not qualified enough to understand even the basics of their job. But the people have no viable choice other than choosing among the criminals. This cannot be termed as the freedom to elect our leaders. The widespread apathy of the electorate can be attributed to this.
In such a scenario, there is an urgent need of an electoral reform which can provide something more potent, meaningful in the hands of the electorate so that they can clearly decide for whom to vote. Right to vote is proving to be an inadequate power for voters to impose their aspirations of honest and capable leaders on political parties. To arrest the declining turnout and the waning interest of the people in elections, powerful change is required in the electoral process.”Right of Negative voting” can be an answer to our compulsion of choosing among the ineligible candidates, to our restlessness towards everything that is hampering the march of this country towards glory. It holds the promise of curbing unethical and immoral practices in Indian politics, making it less corrupt and more accountable by forcing the politicians to think twice before they assume that ordinary man can be taken for granted. The rules of the game will become a bit favourable for the group which has been incessantly bullied for a considerable period of time by the players of this game despite the fact that the group at the receiving end is the judge in this power contest played by the politicians.
The concept of negative voting is not new or something unheard in India. Way back, the Law commission of India recommended for its introduction in elections. Explaining its benefit the commission wrote-“The negative vote is intended to put moral pressure on political parties not to put forward candidates with undesirable record i.e. criminals, corrupt elements and persons with unsavoury background”.
The prefix in the term ‘negative voting’ can be a bit confusing and gives rise to different notions about it such as something opposite of positive voting, invalid voting etc., in our minds. If we consider the way Indians have voted over the years, right from the first general elections in 1952 to the recent one in 2009, then it can be said that majority of Indian electorate think that it is the only way to exercise their vote i.e. either vote for any of the candidate in the given list or don’t vote at all. The possibility of a middle path was not explored, even in cases where voters were totally dissatisfied with the available choices and but wanted to register their votes, not in favour of one candidate but against all candidates as a mark of protest. Although some voters used to register their vote against multiple candidates to show their dissent for the given choices but such votes were considered as invalid by the authorities. There was not and, in fact, there isn’t any provision for anything like “None of the above (NOTA)” either on the ballot paper or electronic voting machines. So the public was kept in the dark and told that they cannot register their protest vote if they are not particularly satisfied with any of the candidates in their constituency.
But it is an irony that even after 62 years of independence, majority of the citizens is unaware of their right to cast a negative vote. According to the Conduct of Election Rules, 1961 “if an elector, after his electoral roll number has been duly entered in the register of voters in Form 17A and has put his signature or thumb impression thereon as required under sub-rule (1) of rule 49L, decided not to record his vote, a remark to this effect shall be made against the said entry in Form 17A by the presiding officer and the signature or the thumb impression of the elector shall be obtained against such remarks”. But surprisingly, most presiding officers never disclose this fact to the voters and ignorance about this obscure provision of law continues to exist.
In the aftermath of 26/11, the overall image of the political class took a severe beating and it reached an all time low. Amid paying tributes to the bravery of the valiant soldiers who martyred themselves to save the innocent lives from the grip of cold-blooded terrorists, India woke up to the gross insensitivity, acute lack of leadership and horribly irresponsible attitude of its leaders. In response to vociferous protests of people, government acted promptly to contain the unprecedented wave of anger and dejection among the people. Some ministers were made to resign coupled with Indian government’s own acceptance, although partial, of the lapses and lacunas in the security system of the country. Voices were raised for substantial change in the whole system. Public opinion was that incidents like the Mumbai attack will not cease to happen if the political will doesn’t include zero-tolerance and strictest actions minus mercy towards terrorism in its scheme of things. . But the generation of superannuated leaders in power is unable to do so. At this juncture the demand of negative voting was also heard from several quarters. Some political observers termed this demand as a knee-jerk reaction to an event which had shell shocked the conscience of the whole nation. But the thing is that demand was always there for a transparent and responsible government and whose un-fulfillment was always resented in the heart of every Indian. What Mumbai blasts provided was just sheer timing to let hell break loose when the long suppressed, unvented anger of the people burst open.
Demand for negative voting is a protest against the established order of things, a fierce opposition to the deep malady which has inflicted the whole nation i.e. complete indifference and reluctance of the ruling class to the problems of the ruled. When people, hurt and battered by the prevailing conditions, demand for their empowerment through a change then the whole establishment becomes hell-bent to stymie the earnest attempt of citizens to streamline the functioning of the country. Negative voting can be construed as a sort of rebellion on the part of the disgusted and disappointed voters to drive home the point that they are not going to choose between the devil and the deep sea. It has now become a common practice rather than an exception for political parties to field candidates with criminal backgrounds. A person charged for as heinous crime as rape or murder is audaciously presented before the people as a candidate of the party. Instead of inspiring leadership qualities, money and muscle power of the candidate is the considered benchmark on which a person is given the party ticket so that he can tilt the favour of the electorate towards the concerned party by unethical and coercive means. Instead of providing a viable alternative to the people by fielding an honest candidate, every political party is engaged in outclassing its rivals by fielding a more criminal-minded candidate who has more means to hijack the election process. It is a blatant abuse of a person’s right to choose when he is required to elect one candidate from a heap of criminals.
If right to vote means right to agree with the principles and ideologies of the candidate then right of negative voting is the “right to dissent” with your candidate if his views are not in consonance with yours. And also the demand for negative voting right cannot be termed as promethean as it is de jure.
Another argument which can be advanced in favour of negative voting is that in Indian scenario a voter is generally a mute spectator to the monkey-business of politicians to grab power .What he can do is just stand and stare at this dance of depravity. Negative voting will force the ruling class to sit down and take notice of the concerns of the ruled. The common man will get the chance to assert himself as the core part of the superstructure called Indian democracy. He will be heard even in the deafening commotion of power games between political adversaries. Every aspiring political leader will have to pass the acid test of people’s acceptance and performance will be the parameter on which he will be judged. He has to perform or be prepared to perish. Negative voting will make him measured in his words, honest in his intentions, committed in his promises and secular in his outlook.
Some people say that there are other ways to express your discontent with the rule. But is taking to streets or resorting to strikes for every small or big problem of ours ethical and justified? And in Indian conditions, where the protest marches and opposition of government policies is hardly heard and almost never addressed, it would be a foolish thing to do. A responsible government will take care of the genuine concerns of its people without being pressed for that. But corrupts and criminals at the helm of affairs will seldom bother about the expectations of the citizens. Negative voting is a method to curb this tendency in the initial stage itself.
However, some analysts argue that negative voting will not bring any substantial difference in the voting pattern of the electorate as people vote for parties and hardly for candidates. So in that situation, even if people are somehow dissatisfied with the candidate then they will not vote against him. Party loyalty is one of the biggest factors which determine the way Indians vote generally. So, barring the few instances where negative voting may alter some political equations, the whole election scenario will remain more or less the same.
The argument suggested here seems convincing but people now-a-days are becoming less concerned with the name of the party. Candidates showing the potential to deliver are most sought-after for the job of a leader. If this were not the situation then how does one explain the shocking defeats of political heavy weights like Lalu Yadav and Ram Vilas Paswan in 2009 Parliamentary Elections, heavy defeat of CPI(M) in West Bengal and the phoenix-like rise of the Congress from ashes in UP.
The blind support of yesteryears is no longer in existence. People’s loyalty to their parties hinges on one thing – either the favoured political group justifies the people’s support or let them be damned. There will no compunction on the part of voters to switch their loyalties for a candidate who can fulfill their aspirations and expectations. Negative voting will ensure that peoples demand for an honest and efficient candidate will be seriously considered by their preferred political party because often a voter finds himself in an awkward situation where choosing his representative does not mean contemplating about the good or best candidates but rather deciding who is going to rule him less autocratically, whimsically and irresponsibly.
We are told voting is our duty. But we are also told that voting responsibly is also our duty. But in situations as discussed above, conscious voter’s mind will be torn between the conflicts of these duties. This conflict indicates that an option is acutely missing between how a person has to vote generally and how he actually wants to vote. Negative voting is that missing link, that radical reform in the system which is long overdue. There isn’t anything negative about this. It is far more positive than going to the polling booth and voting without any reason or conviction. But it seems that the political establishment is not interested in this issue. Way back in 2001, the Election Commission approached the then NDA government with the proposal of introducing negative voting. There was no response from the government. In July 2004, after the UPA government came to power, the EC again approached the government with a set of “urgent proposals for electoral reforms” reagarding negative voting. On the question of negative voting, this is what EC had to say – “The commission has received proposals from a very large number of individuals and organizations that there should be a provision enabling a voter to reject all the candidates in the constituency if he doesn’t find them suitable…The Commission recommends that the law should be amended to specifically provide negative/ neutral voting.” Yet again, there was no response from the government. The reasons for this apathy and grave indifference of the government towards this noble proposal of EC is not far to seek. The opposition to negative voting should be seen in the light of the stumbling blocks that have been placed before the equally innocuous measures for electoral reforms by the political parties. It is also noteworthy that the recent history of attempts at electoral reforms show that the major political parties, notwithstanding their differences, showing a strong common vested interest in denying greater rights and freedom to the electors and closely cooperating in parliament to defend the status quo in electoral law.
But the civil society has not given up its demand. In a PIL filed by PUCL (People’s Union for Civil Liberties) in 2004, it was argued before the Supreme Court that EC must provide for negative voting in full secrecy. Incidentally around this time, the BJP spokesman, and former Law Minister, when asked about the PIL, remarked that “it is a debatable issue and there should be a thorough debate among the cross section of the people”. But the debate is still going on. In its response to the PUCL’S PIL, a two judge bench of the SC disposing the petition found sufficient merit in it to recommend its consideration by a larger Constitution Bench. We can hope that our Honourable SC will recommend the provision of negative voting in elections so that Indians can freely vote for an India they wish to have for themselves.
India has to change for the aspirations of its people because “any entity that stops striving, that stops transcending itself condemns itself to social and institutional stagnation.”
The writer is a correspondent of Youth Ki Awaaz and also a student of NALSAR, Hyderabad.