Much Ado About NOTA
With the elections just around the corner, political parties will definitely be worried about protest votes.
With the general elections just around the corner, preparations and electoral campaigning are in full swing. It promises to be a high voltage contest with Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the Bharatiya Janata Party trying to retain power while the Opposition is trying to unseat them. The only thing they could have in common, perhaps, is anxiety about NOTA (None Of The Above) votes.
NOTA is a comparatively new concept in Indian democracy. It was introduced following a Supreme Court ruling in 2013. After that, the Election Commission introduced the option in all Electronic Voting Machines (EVMs). NOTA now appears as an option in EVMs at the bottom, after the list of candidates. As the name suggests, it enables the voter to officially register a vote of rejection for all candidates who are contesting in a particular constituency if there is a feeling that that they are undeserving.
In theory, the idea was to give voters a way to express their dissatisfaction at the candidates fielded by political parties, thereby indirectly contributing to raising the calibre of the politicians representing the people in the legislature. At the same time, the process guarantees anonymity and privacy. However, NOTA had an impact that was not really thought about. So much so that political parties have started thinking of ways to deal with it. The right to reject has been gaining traction among voters. As a result, a sizeable number of people are voting NOTA.
The EC, after introducing NOTA, indicated that although votes cast as NOTA are counted, they will be classed as invalid votes, so they will not impact the result of the election process. Therefore, whether NOTA gets more or less votes, it is not taken into account for calculating the total valid votes. Moreover, there is still no mechanism developed enough to respond to a situation where NOTA receives a large number of votes. Thus, a candidate will still win, even if a large number of votes is cast as NOTA. It is not in the position to influence the result. However, if the number of NOTA votes are higher than the margin of victory, does that not skew the result?
A study by the Association of Democratic Reforms (ADR) on the results of the Madhya Pradesh Assembly elections threw up some conundrums. A total number of 5, 42,295 votes were polled for NOTA in the elections. In percentage terms, this number may not be high, but in absolute terms, it is quite high. In a closely fought election like the one witnessed in MP, margins are tight and sometimes wafer thin. In some seats, NOTA would have matched or been bigger than the margin of victory for any candidate. Anil Verma, national coordinator of ADR has told the media that NOTA is catching on. “Over the years in elections – in general and state assemblies – the NOTA share is increasing. Seeing the trend, perhaps this time there will be more NOTA votes as there is disenchantment towards politicians and political parties,” he said.
NOTA can be characterised as a protest vote. The concept is neither new nor unique to India, having existed in various countries in different ways prior to being adopted by India, as a way to stop abstention on polling day. But, while providing an outlet for disenchantment, alienation, and apathy, it doesn’t really offer a solution. While the idea is noble, it offers no practical redressal method in a first past the post system.
Apart from this, NOTA also seems to reveal the divisions in Indian society. According to a study on the 2014 Lok Sabha elections by the Centre of the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS), caste seems to be influencing factor for NOTA. According to the study, upper castes are more predisposed to NOTA than lower castes. It found that 2.5 % upper caste voters opted for NOTA. In relation to that, it was 0.6 per cent each among farmers and upper Other Backward Caste (OBC) voters, 1.3 per cent of lower OBC, 0.9 percent of Dalits, 0.7 per cent of Scheduled Tribes (ST), 0.4 per cent of Muslims, 1.3 per cent of Sikhs and 1.8 per cent of other groups went for NOTA. More urban voters (1.9 per cent) opted for NOTA than rural voters (0.6 per cent).
While NOTA is an ideal concept to register protest, it offers little scope in terms of practical impact. In closely fought elections, it can tip the scales, but not in the way it is envisaged. Voting is a basic fundamental right, guaranteed by the Constitution and for many people in this country, it is one of few opportunities to make their voices heard. NOTA needs to work for them.