The Supreme Court of India has in the past few decades notoriously acquired a name for being extremely active in the functioning of the nation. What we today label as “judicial activism” has become a norm for the apex court of our country. May it be creating guidelines or law of the land via judicial pronouncements or criticising (or as critics put it, ‘interfering’) with the functioning of the executive, the top court of our nation has become a rather overbearing guardian of the citizenry which seeks its doors for justice. Last year, in one of its yet another “landmark judgments”, the Supreme Court directed the Election Commission of India to provide the “none of the above” or NOTA option to voters. In a PIL filed by the People’s Union for Civil Liberties, the question brought up in front of a three member bench of the apex court was whether a voter’s decision to not cast a vote, which subsequently resulted in the voter’s identity being specially noted by the Presiding officer, was violative of the norm of a secret ballot and whether this violated article 19 of the Constitution of India.
Ever since its implementation, NOTA has seen almost minimal usage. The average exercise of the NOTA has been roughly 4% per constituency(As reported in The Mint at http://www.livemint.com/Opinion/b6ZPsuUYS2G3fWR2KItpaJ/Is-NOTA-serving-any-purpose.html ). This coupled, with the fact that NOTA does not entail a empowering right to recall or right to reject, has led to a plethora of criticism and ridicule being directed in the direction of this rather forward looking step. This stems from a popular example that is widely used across the media:
“Even if 90 voters in an electorate of 100 persons press the NOTA button, the poll will be decided in favour of the candidate who gets the maximum of the remaining 10 votes”
Here’s why I believe that NOTA is actually not a huge waste but to the contrary an extremely vital requirement in a democracy as varied as ours. Firstly, I want to discard the over exaggerated example right away by drawing a simple parallel to a holistic and realistic outlook. Most of India’s electorate holds a certain opinion about politicians which maybe be crudely worded in the Hindi phrase “sab chor hain” . Despite this, almost everyone prefers a particular party, candidate or ideology over the other. At ground reality, there is hardly anyone who wishes to take his or her cynicism to extreme levels of deciding to not have any candidate rather than choosing from what is available. This is clearly reflected in the above mentioned statistics. But the essential point that needs to be addressed is that as a democracy, we need to give voice to each distinctive opinion, however small its number maybe. Earlier the procedure to “not vote” was governed by section 49(O) of the Representation of People Act which infringed upon a voter’s right to cast his vote anonymously or as popularly called, the secret ballot process was not being extended to its entirety as a certain number of voters were forced to disclose their identity and more importantly, the political opinion associated with the aforementioned identity. The introduction of the NOTA has solved this crucial problem.
Secondly, we can gauge the importance of the NOTA from the vehement opposition offered by the State to its introduction. “The government had probably sensed the potential of the proposal being upgraded to a ‘right to reject’ all candidates in the future, which would invalidate any election where the negative voting option has been exercised in over 50% cases,” a former bureaucrat pointed out when the government’s legal resistance had become public. The Supreme Court of India has constantly been liberal in interpreting the laws of this nation and has truly upheld its duty as guardian of the Constitution. The fact that NOTA is a part of a voter’s choice has led to calls for stronger options such as right to reject or right to recall, whose feasibility I admit, is still under debate, but the rather important caveat is the legitimatization of the debate and the increased realistic expectation of achieving it.
Lastly, I would like to address the idealistic aspect. The NOTA, like many things in this nation, is an idealistic and symbolic gesture. The entire purpose of this option is not to waste election funds or give leeway for anarchy or express cynicism. It is simply a way by which a voter can express his discontent at the candidates from his or her constituency in a manner that ensures anonymity and protects his or her identity. There maybe multiple reasons apart from the one mentioned here for a voter to exercise NOTA. One of my friends recently exercised the NOTA because the only acceptable candidate from his constituency belonged to a party which he believed wasn’t ready for participating in governance at the central level. NOTA provides the Indian electorate to express its political views in a more precise manner by essentially granting them the much needed abstention option along with the traditional choices between A and B.
Maybe it is time for the world’s largest democracy to regard the election process with optimistic idealism rather than crude cynicism which in the end, never serves a purpose.