Indore: Poll training given in locked rooms of colleges
Photo by Indranil MUKHERJEE / AFP
Indore: Poll training given in locked rooms of colleges Photo by Indranil MUKHERJEE / AFP

Now that the hype over Balakot air strike and the nationalism narrative have ebbed and in the absence of a visible wave political parties and candidates are back to brass tacks; stakeholders are busy crafting winning strategies that include pre-poll alliances, booth management, smart manifestoes, voter mobilisation, poaching turncoats and rebels from rival parties. In a do or die battle where every vote matters, the political class, the BJP-RSS in particular, is nervous about the impact of NOTA (None of the Above) option and low voter turnout that could cook the goose of many a candidate.

NOTA, an option button at the bottom of the Electronic Voting Machine giving electorate the choice of not going with any of the candidates in the fray, was introduced in 2013. Parties fielding controversial and tainted candidates need to worry as the number of negative votes has seen an upswing in the recent elections underlying the growing disenchantment of voters with candidates sans integrity.

NOTA alternative came into effect after the Supreme Court in the People’s Union for Civil Liberties vs Union of India case ruled that voters should be able to exercise their “right not to vote while maintaining their right of secrecy”. India has been a late entrant into the NOTA club that has countries like the US, UK, Spain, France, Sweden, Brazil, Greece, Finland, Chile, Bangladesh, Ukraine, Belgium, Columbia and a few others.

Unfortunately, rather than addressing the core issue (of not giving tickets to tainted candidates and fielding clean ones), NOTA is blamed for spawning political instability. Perhaps, RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat had premonition of adverse NOTA impact on BJP prospects in the tri-state election in December last year. In Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh, NOTA polled more than the victory margin of the winner and the runner-up in 22-odd seats. While BJP lost 12 seats to the Congress, the latter lost ten.

Parties like the AAP and SP polled less than NOTA votes. In September, (three months before the election) Bhagwat, in his Vijayadashmi address, had debunked NOTA saying that “in a democratic system one has to elect the best among the available…100 per cent is very difficult…In such a situation, not voting or using provisions of NOTA goes in favour of the one who are most ineffective…”

By selecting the NOTA option, a voter, he said, chooses the “available worst against the available best”. He said that 100 per cent voting is essential while keeping in mind national interest as supreme “without getting swayed away by the campaign of all the sides…” His assertions are subjective and problematic. The logic of selecting “best among the available” can also mean that the voters elect a candidate who is comparatively less corrupt or criminal.

Suppose, in a given constituency, all the five candidates in the fray are corrupt or with criminal background, the voter is left with no choice but elect one in any case. The RSS boss is apparently not happy with the “campaign of all aides swaying the voters”. The primary objective of election campaign is to win the perception battle and sway the electorate. Bhagwat’s fear of NOTA betrays a mindset of 100 per cent control of everything.

If NOTA were a problem, its effect can be neutralised by weeding out tainted candidates and ensuring 100 per cent voter participation. Realising the dangers of low turn-out in the time of NOTA, Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself had in an unusual move gone on a Twitter blitzkrieg calling on politicians and celebrities (by tagging them with personal messages) to encourage more people to vote.

The Supreme Court in its wisdom felt that “NOTA option would indeed compel political parties to nominate sound candidates, empower voters, increase their turnout and act as an incentive for political parties to project clean candidates.” The apex court had observed that voting machines in the Parliament also have a button for negative voting, viz, Yes, Noes and Abstain. “By pressing the NOTA button, the voter is in effect saying that he is abstaining from voting since he does not find any of the candidates to be worthy of his vote,” the court said.

Going by conventional wisdom, elite and educated urban voters should use NOTA button more than their poor counterparts in rural segments. However, in Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh, NOTA vote count was higher in SC/ST constituencies than in general areas and in 2014, as many as ten rural constituencies in Chattisgarh’s Maoist dominated districts recorded between two and three percentage of NOTA while Bastar topped with 5 per cent.

It, surely, is a sign of growing alienation and frustration of Dalits and Adivasis with the prevailing political ecosystem. As of now, the only valid complaint against NOTA is that it could be used to promote casteism. Critics claim that in the last election some upper caste voters in Kerala pressed the NOTA button as they were unwilling to vote for lower caste and Dalit candidates.

However, it is an isolated incident as voters’ choice, by and large, is dictated by their party affiliations. Many Brahmin and Rajput candidates have also won elections on tickets of casteist parties like the BSP, SP and others securing Dalits-OBC votes as well. Logically, the NOTA should do more harm to the party in power than the Opposition as anti-incumbency comes into play.

NOTA option is small step forward in cleansing candidates’ selection process till the Election Commission effects substantial electoral reforms. It is a well-known secret that some political parties sell their tickets even to corrupt and criminal elements for money.

Though the Commission has been proactive in educating people to vote, it has not shown that much interest in publicising the NOTA option. NOTA is an expression of frustration and if its use becomes rampant, political parties will be forced to espouse systemic changes and field candidates known for their integrity.

Kay Benedict is an independent journalist.

Free Press Journal