By Ishaan Bansal & Mrunal Marathe
NOTA (none of the above) as an option, was introduced in 2013 and has since then emerged as a notable aspect in the analysis of Indian Elections. The 2019 Lok-Sabha elections witnessed an average NOTA vote-share of 1.06% with NOTA gathering 65.13 lakh votes out of the total votes polled in the country. The option of NOTA came into effect when the writ petition filed by People’s Union for Civil Liberalities, questioning the violation of secrecy when a voter chose to abstain from voting was discussed in the Supreme Court and the court decided to direct the ECI to introduce NOTA as an option.
This was done to ensure that a voter could express dissent and protest, while still maintaining the secrecy of his ballot to help achieve greater participation in the exercise of democracy. The SC bench under former chief justice P Sathasivam also noted, maybe a little over-optimistically that, “When the political parties realize that a large number of people are expressing their disapproval with the candidates being put up by them, gradually there will 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”.
Has NOTA been able to live up to these expectations set by the Supreme Court? Do we see greater participation or cleaner politics as a result of NOTA? Where is a greater NOTA vote being recorded? This article looks at the 2019 elections data to analyse some of the key trends seen in the NOTA vote-share and tries to answer some of these questions.
An analysis of the state-wise votes gathered by NOTA in the 2019 polls, saw the state of Bihar top the country with a NOTA vote-share of over 2%, with 8.17 lakh voters using the option in the state. The SC constituency of Gopalganj in Bihar, with a NOTA vote-share of 5.04% polled the highest NOTA vote-share in the country. The states of Andhra Pradesh (1.49%), Chhattisgarh (1.44%) and Gujarat (1.38%) also witnessed high NOTA vote-share, well above the national average.
High NOTA Vote Recorded On Reserved Seats
One of the key trends observed across the state and general elections, since the introduction of NOTA, has been that a greater number of people in the reserved constituencies (SC/ST) have opted for the none of the above options as compared to the general seats.
In 2019 Lok-Sabha elections, 1.76% of the voters in ST seats and 1.16% in the SC seats chose NOTA as opposed to 0.98% of the voters choosing NOTA on the general seats. This same trend held true in the 2014 general elections as well.
One possible explanation for this phenomenon could be that the upper castes in these areas are opting for NOTA as a means of resentment on being compelled to elect a lower-caste or tribal candidate. Anecdotal evidence shows that in a lot of these constituencies’ various caste-based groups have campaigned for choosing NOTA in order to protest against caste-based reservation. While a greater analysis is required to make more concrete statements, these numbers certainly show mobilization for NOTA in reserved constituencies.
Since the inception of NOTA, it has been observed that the areas affected by Left-Wing Extremism have on an average seen a higher NOTA vote-share as compared to other parts of the country. The 2019 elections continued to follow a similar trend, with nearly six out of the top ten constituencies with the highest NOTA vote-share being witness to left-wing extremism activities. Bastar (4.56%), Paschim Champaran (4.51%), Jamui (4.16%), Nabrangpur (3.85%), Nawada (3.73%) and Koraput (3.38%) all form a part of the red-corridor affected by LWE. The state-wise data also points to the fact that the states of Bihar, Chhattisgarh and Andhra Pradesh, affected by LWE, have gathered a high proportion of NOTA vote-share. The high NOTA vote-share in the areas affected by Naxal and Maoist insurgencies point to the possible use of NOTA as a means to oppose and protest against the state machinery.
The degree of political competition in the state seems to have some bearing on the number of votes gathered by NOTA in Indian elections. It has been seen that states which witnessed a direct bi-polar contest between the two main national parties, the Congress and the BJP or its alliance partners saw a high NOTA vote-share, as compared to states which were successful in providing the voters with a third alternative.
The 2019 results showed that the states of Bihar (2%), Andhra Pradesh (1.49%), Gujarat (1.38%) witnessed a high NOTA vote-share. Bihar saw a bipolar contest between the BJP-JD(U) alliance on one side and the Congress-RJD alliance on the other. Similarly, Andhra saw a direct fight between the two regional parties, the YSR Congress and the TDP while in Gujarat it was a fight between the two national parties the BJP and the INC.
The states of Uttar Pradesh (0.84%) and Delhi (0.53%) where there was a three-way contest, recorded comparatively lower NOTA vote-share numbers. While Delhi provided the voters with a third alternative of AAP, Uttar Pradesh saw the alliance of SP-BSP as an alternative to the BJP and the Congress. The 2019 elections hence upheld the broad trend of voters opting for the NOTA button when they found a lack of a third alternative while casting their vote.
These trends point to a pattern in terms of where the NOTA votes come from but have NOTA had any bearing on changing the election outcome in 2019. Or for that matter has it even led to higher voter participation?
An analysis of turnout percentage in the constituencies which accounted for the highest NOTA vote-share points out that only 3 out of the top 10 constituencies registered a turnout percentage higher than the national average. Hence, as seen previously the 2019 elections also did not point out towards a substantial correlation between a high NOTA vote-share leading to high turnout numbers. NOTA hasn’t really been able to make an impact on the turnout numbers in the country.
Another popular way to look at the impact of NOTA is to compare the average winning margin in a constituency against the NOTA vote-share. A greater NOTA vote would mean that there is a possibility that the election verdict may have been reversed had NOTA not been put in place. As such a total of 26 seats were won by a margin less than the number of NOTA votes cast in that constituency in the 2019 elections.
Even as this number provides little proof in favour of the impact of NOTA, we also believe that this is an erroneous way of understanding the NOTA impact for two reasons. One, it assumes that a large chunk of the NOTA votes would go to the candidate on the second place which may not happen. Second, changing the election outcome was never the impact that was desired out of NOTA. NOTA was put in place as a means to represent a vote of dissent against the candidates standing in the elections or a disillusionment with the political climate of the country. Until provisions that give greater teeth to NOTA are put in place, such as declaring elections null and void if NOTA performs better than the leading candidates, there will be no tangible effect of having put in place the option of ‘none of the above’.
Note: The data used in the above analysis has been taken from Trivedi Center for Political Data (TCPD).