The ‘None of the Above’ provision on electoral voting machines is turning out to be a decentralised protest
In states like Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu there are murmurs — audible enough to qualify as a trend — of people preferring to exercise ‘None of the above’ or NOTA provision on the electronic voting machines. This means people will show their disapproval of all contesting candidates even if their vote-for-none has no consequence for any candidate. In fact, in MP and Maharashtra, farmers’ organisations are reportedly appealing their constituents to exercise this option.
In a recently televised series, psephologist Prannoy Roy, for the first time, spoke to a large number of voters on their preferences for candidates. Most of them indicated that they might exercise their NOTA right. And their reasons for doing so were clear: first, they have lost confidence in political parties delivering on their promises; second, NOTA gives them the right to protest. The second reason is debatable.
Indians got to exercise this right for the first time in 2013. Since then, the provision has been used in two general elections (including the 2019 General Elections) and 42 legislative assembly elections (including those held along with the current General Elections). According to an analysis by the Association for Democratic Reforms, during 2013 and 2017, 13.3 million people exercised this option in various elections. In the Lok Sabha elections of 2014, six million people exercised this right.
The overall number is not that consequential given the scale of India’s elections. But it is clear that this option is fast emerging as the preferred one against TINA (There is no alternative), mostly for the young and restless. It has been observed (it still needs further statistical analysis) that in tribal and relatively less-developed parliamentary constituencies this option is being exercised more in comparison to general constituencies. Similarly, wherever the number of first-time voters is higher, NOTA is more opted for.
The Supreme Court, that mandated this right, termed it an individual’s choice and argued that this would trigger more political participation. An analysis by researchers from the University of Houston showed that NOTA increased voter turnout by approximately 1-2 per cent of the eligible voting population between 2006 and 2014. In fact, they specifically mentioned that first-time voters participated in polls just to exercise this mode of protest.
Though Indians have a right to refuse vote, it involves a very cumbersome process and also compromises privacy of the decision. Given the rising disappointment from politicians, the NOTA option is turning out to be the most effective forum to protest at every individual level. The campaigns by civil society groups to appeal for NOTA may emerge as the next big political participation in the world’s largest democracy.
History shows that NOTA-like provisions have been responsible for epoch-making events. It is widely perceived that a NOTA-like provision and its exercise by voters led to the disintegration of the erstwhile USSR, resulting into a completely new world order. Many communist party leaders were not elected and they were replaced by new leaders who voted for the collapse of the Union.
Similarly, in the 1989 elections in Poland, a right to reject (similar to NOTA) was exercised tactically by voters to reject all candidates. The defeat of many communist leaders, including the then prime minister, led to the victory of Lech Walesa and the collapse of the communist regime. Walesa, in fact, called this provision the instrument of change.
By the end of May, we will get to see how NOTA has been exercised. Whether it has been exercised as an individual protest mark or a tactical tool to defeat a candidate. But its emergence as a powerful democratic tool is beyond doubt.
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