Elections 2019: To NOTA Or Not

Voters in Indian elections can opt for ballot option NOTA, or none of the above, if they aren’t satisfied with the candidates in the fray. Introduced in 2013, the concept of “negative voting” was meant to promote democracy. The Supreme Court had said it would “send clear signals to political parties and their candidates as to what the electorate thinks about them”.

NOTA was used in the Lok Sabha election for the first time in 2014 and was 1.1 percent of the total ballots cast. Its vote share beat some regional parties and its significance has only grown since then.

Elections 2019: To NOTA Or Not

But is it the optimum use of an Indian citizen’s fundamental right to vote?

The debate unfolded in a hotly contested election where Prime Minister Narendra Modi-led Bharatiya Janata Party is eyeing a second term after winning the last general election with a brute majority. On the other side, there’s a clutch of opposition parties, including the Congress, that hopes to beat the BJP and form a coalition government. That’s when an appeal by Swaraj India—a political party led by former Aam Aadmi Party leader Yogendra Yadav—to voters to opt for NOTA in the three-cornered contest in the national capital turned controversial. Yadav soon clarified his position saying NOTA is a “legitimate but temporary, last resort”.

While NOTA is a good alternative for those who aren’t impressed with the contesting candidates, the provision has remained symbolic without the ability to impact the election outcome.

In its current form, NOTA would have a meaningful impact in the next 100 years! According to former Chief Election Commissioner OP Rawat.

In an evolutionary manner NOTA should enrich democracy and result into something meaningful for the electorate in the next 100 years. But if a voters’ life is just about 40-45 years, the voter would like to see changes quickly.
OP Rawat, Former Chief Election Commissioner

As per current rules, even if majority of voters in a constituency opt for NOTA, the candidate with the next highest share of ballots is declared the winner. Last year, state election commissions in Maharashtra and Haryana ruled that fresh polls would be held if more votes were cast for NOTA. But this was restricted to municipal and panchayat elections and it’s not clear if this would stand up to legal scrutiny.

Elections 2019: To NOTA Or Not

Political activists have been pushing for an amendment so that NOTA could have some real impact. They want a provision that follows the model of Maharashtra and Haryana and not allow parties to field the same candidates in the re-election.

But without these provisions and the power to make a difference, is NOTA still a worthwhile option?

“NOTA is an investment in democracy,” said Jagdeep Chhokar, founder of Association for Democratic Reform. The day NOTA polls more votes than any other candidates, the organisation would move courts to ensure no candidate is declared winner, he told BloombergQuint. The purpose, he said, is not to give political parties a “monopoly” over voters’ choices and dissuade them from fielding candidates with “dubious records”.

It is not a question of wastage of a vote, if implemented properly it will improve the quality of democracy.
Jagdeep Chhokar, Founder Member, ADR

NOTA is far from getting most votes at this stage. The highest that has been polled for this category was in the election for Union Territory of Puducherry where 3 percent of voters chose NOTA. But it can still make a difference. The vote share for NOTA, according to ADR data, was higher than the margin of victory in 30 seats in the last Gujarat Assembly election where the BJP won, but with a reduced margin. It is in close electoral contests where NOTA can make the most difference.

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