NOTA, No Game-changer!

NOTA, No Game-changer!

NOTA, No Game-Changer, Election Commission. All over the continent, the elections have become farcical. People are seething with anger and are threatening to use NOTA (None of the Above) option.

All over the continent, the elections have become farcical. People are seething with anger and are threatening to use NOTA (None of the Above) option. It may seem like a saviour at the outset, but is in fact toothless. It cannot punish anyone. No election could be stalled. Even if 99 out of 100 voters press NOTA button, the candidate who receives that one precious vote will be declared winner. By pressing NOTA button, you are only invalidating your vote. The need of the hour is to give teeth to NOTA

The symbol approved by Election Commission is a circular depiction with black background and NOTA written in white capital letters in English

Lakhs of distressed farmers in Vidarbha region had threatened to press NOTA (None of the Above) button if they are not given aid for farm losses immediately. Vidarbha Jan Andolan Samiti chief Kishore Tiwari explained that the farmers in Vidarbha region suffered double losses due to floods and hailstorm within a couple of months and they have to be compensated. “No Aid, No Vote”, was the slogan. Aid was not disbursed and the people of Vidarbha voted on April 10. How many of them pressed NOTA button would be known only on May 16 when the votes will be counted. Even then it would not be known if they actually opted to invalidate their votes since it is going to be a secret.

Sex workers in Kolkata organised a rally to give notice to the political class that they would use the NOTA option if their problems are not addressed before the polling day. They demand to be recognised as workers and all the benefits that are given to working class should be extended to them.

A Congress Minister in Omar Abdullah cabinet, Chowdhary Taj Mohiuddin, wrote to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh requesting him to ask the Election Commission to exempt Jammu & Kashmir from the use of NOTA option since the voter turnout is already low and the separatists would take advantage of this option to sabotage the election process. The figures of 2002 would indicate how low the voter participation in elections in J&K is. The winning candidate from Habbakadal constituency in Srinagar city, Raman Matoo, received 587 votes out of 66,782 votes.

After Lagadapati Rajagopal, Vijayawada MP, used pepper spray in Lok Sabha, the political commentators expressed their shock and anger in no uncertain terms. One of them suggested that NOTA would be a tight slap in the face of unruly MPs. Incidentally, Lagadapati has chosen not to give scope to the voters to use the option by keeping out of the contest.

Actress Savita Bhatti, the widow of the famous comedian Jaspal Bhatti, after withdrawing from the contest for Chandigarh Lok Sabha seat, floated a “Nota Party” with a wad of notes as its election symbol. “With every party targeting corruption, we are wondering where the corruption will go. So we have decided that our party will offer platform only for the corrupt. They are highly skilled people with great networking”, Savita said tongue-in- cheek. She added, “Only those candidates with a minimum of Rs 200 crore scam under their belt can apply for membership. All those people with a minimum of 20 criminal charges against them would also be welcome”. NOTA Party, floated by ‘Nonsense Club’ founded by Jaspal, is a stinging satire on the present-day Indian politics.

These are some of innumerable instances in which people wanted to give vent to their anger and frustration by using NOTA as weapon to punish. Savita’s was the election year’s best political sarcasm. The common thread in all these happenings is the assumption that NOTA can be used to punish the corrupt, irresponsible or criminals among the candidates. Such is the pent up anger.

K Ramachandra Murthy

Democratic societies across Asia have been facing the wrath of the people. Elections that were held in Bangladesh recently were boycotted by Bangladesh Nationalist Party, the main opposition, and the ruling Awami League continues to stay put in power sans moral authority. In Nepal 33 political parties had rejected the constituent assembly elections in November 2013. In Thailand, the oldest political party, the Democrats, agitated for many months for dissolution of parliament, but refused to participate in the resultant elections after their demand for dissolution was met. The opposition parties in Cambodia and Malaysia refuse to accept till date the fact that they lost the elections held months ago. In the tiny Maldives, elections took place repeatedly till the most popular politician Mohamad Nasheed lost. All over the continent the elections have become farcical. The legitimacy has been lost. People are seething with anger.

An attempt is being made in India to restore respectability to the election process. Right to reject is a step in that direction. On September 17, 2013 Supreme Court of India directed the Election Commission to introduce a button providing for None of the Above (NOTA) in the EVMs and also in the ballot papers so that voters could exercise their right to reject the undeserving candidates in the elections. The apex court Bench of Chief Justice P Sathasivam, Justice Ranjana Prakash Desai and Justice Ranjana Gogoi said (hoped) the negative voting would gradually lead to systemic changes as political parties will have to respect the will of the people in selecting their candidates.

The decision of the apex court was a result of a petition moved by people’s Union of Civil Liberties (PUCL) in 2004 with a plea that voters should have right to cast negative vote in secrecy. Earlier, a voter used to spoil the ballot paper by stamping it at more than one place if he or she is not interested in voting for any of the candidates in the fray. Some used to write with vengeance on the ballot paper, “Sab Chor Hai (All are thieves)”. The secrecy used to be intact.

But with the advent of EVMs in 1998, the secrecy or the option for invalid votes disappeared. Pressing of a button is accompanied by a beep that is audible to the election agents and officials in the polling station. No beep means no vote. The agents would know which voter eschewed from voting. This not only violated the secrecy but also made the voters vulnerable to reprisals.

The PUCL petition was first examined by apex court Bench comprising Justice BN Agarwal (since retired) and Justice GS Singhvi. They referred the matter to a larger Bench on February 23, 2009. One of the queries the Bench asked was, “whether the right of the voter to exercise his choice of the candidate is necessary concomitant of the voter’s freedom of expression guaranteed under Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution.” The second query was, “Whether the width and amplitude of the power of the Election Commission under Article 324 needs further consideration by a larger Bench in the light of the earlier judgments of this court (SC) where by the elector’s right to be informed about the aspects and antecedents of the persons seeking election to the legislature has been duly recognised.”

The direction given by the Bench headed by the Chief Justice of Supreme Court was a result of this reference. NOTA was used for the first time in the State elections held in Delhi, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh last year. Three stalwarts of Rajasthan politics, two of them ministers in Gehlot cabinet, fell victims to NOTA indirectly. In Rajasthan, nearly 1.92 percent of voters (5,88,391) pressed the NOTA button. In three constituencies more voters opted for NOTA than the margin of votes by which the prominent politicians lost the election. Food & Civil Supplies Minister Parsadilal Meena was defeated by a margin of 491 votes in Lalsot constituency where 3,963 voters opted for NOTA. Sports & Youth Affairs Minister Mangilal Grasia lost by 3, 345 votes in Gogunda constituency where as many as 5,893 voters pressed the NOTA button. The BJP scored a thumping victory in those elections. But the party’s senior leader Devi Singh Bhati lost from Kolayat, a constituency he has represented for 35 years, by 1,134 votes. He might have won if the 2,951 voters who opted for NOTA had chosen to vote for him.

The present elections are being held under the shadow of epic corruption and misgovernance. As many as 10 crore voters have been added since 2009. Most of them are angry with the state of affairs. Those who were utterly unhappy with the establishment in Delhi voted for Aam Aadmi Party (AAP). Now people are upset with AAP too after Arvind Kejriwal abdicated power after 49 days. All such voters threaten to press NOTA button. But nothing is going to happen. NOTA is not a game-changer. It is toothless. It cannot punish anyone. No election could be stalled. Even if 99 out of 100 voters pressed NOTA button, the candidate who received that one precious vote will be declared winner. Even if the number of voters who opted for NOTA is more than the number of votes received by the top most candidate, it will not have any effect. Friedrich Nietzche advised that given a choice between two evils, we should choose the lesser evil. Ultimately that is going to happen. By pressing NOTA button you are only invalidating your vote. It is an expression of protest and nothing more. You can also ensure that nobody would cast your vote.

To provide teeth to NOTA and to force the political parties to select better candidates, two things have to be done. One, NOTA should be backed by a guarantee that if a certain percentage of voters go for NOTA options, there would be re-election in the constituency. But the candidates have to be changed. Two, NOTA will remain a dud missile without the right to recall where the voters can recall the legislators who are not performing up to their expectations. Only then will there be true power in the hands of the voters to force the political parties to fall in line.

In the process of empowering the voters, a healthy and highly calibrated campaign is required to provide teeth for NOTA. Such a campaign was launched in Bengaluru by Gram Panchayat Hakkottaya Andolan (GPHA). More such campaigns are needed to make our democracy truly vibrant.

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