The percentage of voters punching in the None of the Above or the NOTA option in the recently concluded Maharashtra assembly elections saw a rise compared to the 2014 polls. An analysis showed that 7,42,134 voters opted for NOTA as against 4,60,741 voters who had chosen this option in 2014 polls. Earlier, in Madhya Pradesh assembly election 2018, NOTA got 1.4% or 5.42 lakh votes.
NOTA in elections was described as the maturing of India’s democracy as it provides voters with the option to disapprove of all the candidates in an election. In the historical People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) vs. Union of India case, the Supreme Court (SC) upheld the constitutional right of citizens to cast a negative vote in elections. However, it does not provide voters the ‘Right to Reject,’ which implies that even if the number of votes against NOTA is more than the number of votes secured by the candidates, the candidate who secures the largest number of votes among the contesting candidates is declared to be elected.
In a recent judgment, the SC rejected a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) petition which asked for re-election if NOTA votes exceed in an election, a major blow to democratic sentiment. The petitioner raised a valid point that if NOTA gets the highest number of votes, it would amount to an expression of public dissatisfaction with the candidates in the fray. In its judgment, the SC cleared that conducting elections in our country costs money and conducting re-elections on such basis would create an extra burden on the public exchequer.
Gujarat Legislative Assembly elections of 2017 recorded 5.5 lakh NOTA votes, making it 1.8% of the total valid votes, a relatively small figure, of course. Merely 1-2% of votes will remain a symbolic instrument of expressing resentment. The way NOTA functions in our democracy, it is rightly considered as ‘Wastage of Vote,’ which is no different than abstention and boycott.
However, if considered from an opposite perspective, it can be argued that NOTA votes are cast in a small proportion because it is ineffective and doesn’t convert inherent resentment into outright public distrust against the political class. It is believed that it will not fetch anything but internal satisfaction. If they are ensured of re-election, NOTA might be proved an effective instrument of democracy as it is not that improvement plans are not being suggested for the same.
Various proposals have been recommended, one being re-election if NOTA receives the highest number of votes. This is certainly a praiseworthy suggestion. It, however, raises a pertinent question of whom the disapproval is against—the candidate, political party, or manifesto of political parties? Re-election can be conducted after due deliberation between the public and political class if the disapproval is against the candidate or policies. However, if it is against political parties, much can’t be changed and the result of re-election would be more-or-less the same on the ground.
Further, if the same candidate contests with the same policies again, then the electorate will probably choose NOTA until the candidate or policy is changed. It is evident that in the absence of a direct and clear-cut dialogue mechanism between electorate and candidate or political party, there are risks of getting into the vicious cycle of elections.
However, advocates of NOTA argue that the NOTA button may be disabled to avoid a series of re-election. As part of recommendations, it is also suggested that political parties that lose to NOTA should bear the cost of re-election. It is argued that this will not only solve the problem of election conducting costs and expenses up to a certain extent but will also limit excessive expenditure in campaigning by political parties in the very first instance.
There are certainly issues with re-elections but those issues can be resolved if we look for the light bulb in the dark room with due deliberation and discussion among all the stakeholders involved in the process. Outright rejection of an idea is going to take us nowhere, that too at a time when we vehemently demand electoral reforms.
As I said earlier, barely giving a symbolic representation in the electronic voting machine (EVM) does not serve the purpose at all. It can make up to the headlines at most but hardly change any situation on the ground. The need of the hour is to provide more powers to this instrument in order to ensure accountability of the political class to the people. It will also ensure cohesive and inclusive manifesto, along with better candidatures in the political arena.