N. Jayaram | Countercurrents
During the recent legislative assembly elections in Karnataka, in a quiet and genteel area of Bangalore where I volunteered as polling agent for about 12 hours, there was mild commotion late in the afternoon when a senior presiding officer barged into a voting booth and asked the officer there for a “Form 49A”.
It transpired that in another booth in the same school building, a voter had gone through the process of presenting identity card, registering to vote, getting indelible ink applied on the left ring finger and getting the electronic voting machine enabled to receive the vote. At that point the person decided not to vote for any of the candidates on offer and wanted to walk away.
Not so fast, was the officials’ reaction. Once the machine was enabled to record a vote, there was no going back. A counter process had to kick in, to cancel all that had been done step by step. Hence the frantic quest for Form 49 (A).
I had only vaguely heard of this form a couple of days earlier. Under 49 (O) of the rules for conduct of elections dating back to 1961, Indian voters can make a point by opting for it. Not many people know about it. However, as many as 524 people had exercised that option in the recent Karnataka elections.1
Until the advent of electronic balloting in India, those who did not want to vote for any candidate either spoiled the ballot paper or left it blank. But with the introduction of voting machines, that option of invalidating one’s vote or registering dissent has been foreclosed. The Election Commission makes no provision for it.
There has to be a debate on enabling voters to say they “abstain” or click “none of the above” (NOTA).
I tried discussing this with the officials in the election booth where I spent the day. But after 6 pm when polling ended, they were exceedingly busy winding up. They had a massive number of forms to fill, envelopes to stuff and seal, and secure the voting machines. I believe they were around for at least a couple of hours more after some of us left.
While they proffered brief replies, a polling agent for the candidate of a major political party made a dismissive remark about Indians that is standard fare – we are too immature for a none-of-the-above option and India is not Switzerland and so on.
Perhaps the Election Commission, which has a healthier respect for Indian voters and their needs, could consider this or some other alternatives after a public debate on the issue.
A few counter-arguments to letting people vote NOTA might be these:
Why don’t you put up your own candidate?
But an individual voter might say I am too young and inexperienced or too aged and frail or lacking in funds and resources or knowledge of the constituency as a whole to go about identifying my choice beforehand. But I reserve the right to reject the options that offer themselves.
What if in an unlikely scenario, NOTA gets the most votes in a constituency? Presumably a re-election will be called. Should all or some of the candidates and parties that contested be allowed to do so again or barred from seeking election in that constituency? Should voters in one or more constituencies be allowed the option of rejecting candidates ad infinitum or should they be told choose one now and be done with it?
Moreover, if voters in one constituency or several were so organised as to mount a successful campaign for a NOTA vote, why could they not proceed to put up a candidate of their choice? Again, it is possible that in an area where muscle power is rife or where members of one dominant caste or community terrorise another, putting up a rival candidate might be dangerous. A quiet campaign for NOTA voting might speak more loudly of that constituency’s problem and draw outside attention.
Then there is the issue of whether a NOTA option might take votes away from minor candidates: perhaps voters turning their backs on major parties might have preferred to back independents or representatives of minor parties. But the counter-question is: does the absence of a NOTA option confer more votes to independents and minor parties than they deserve?
A study published in 2011 on more than three and a half decades of experience with NOTA voting in Nevada in the United States, found that “the presence of the option does not hinder support for minor party candidates”.2
That study went on to note:
“Of the various types of nonvotes, it is NOTA voting that is least understood and least studied. Yet it is NOTA voting that in principle offers a solution to the ambiguous signals that abstention and spoiled ballots send to the political system. NOTA voting could allow us to identify patterns of disaffection – and allow voters to express that disaffection – much more clearly than other types of nonvotes.”
In India, the People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) favours inclusion of the NOTA option and plans to step up its campaign demanding the government accept this well before next year’s general elections.
Pratap Bhanu Mehta, President of the Centre for Policy Research has rejected the NOTA suggestion calling it a muddled response on the part of India’s privileged and, concluding: “We need better institutionalised parties more than negative voting.”3
It is unclear whether Mehta deems the PUCL to be part of the privileged, but most likely he will concede that his is not the last word and that more political scientists need to weigh in on the issue.
In a 2005 affidavit, Kiran Puri of the Ministry of Law and Justice was quoted as saying: “It would hardly be easy for the largely illiterate Indian electorate to understand the concept of a negative vote.”4
The government has to make up its mind whether the Indian electorate is “largely illiterate” only when issues such as NOTA voting is raised or whether it remains so when it comes to submitting information to United Nations agencies gathering information about the country’s social indicators.
Do the Home Ministry and the External Affairs Ministry agree with the Ministry of Law and Justice in its characterisation of India’s electorate (representative of the larger population)? Or does each wing of government stock a different response to suit its narrow cynical purpose?
All this is not to say that NOTA voting has to be adopted in India right away: far from it. Rather, the proponents of NOTA such as the PUCL and opponents such as Mehta and officials of the Indian government as well as other institutions, political scientists and the larger public need to have a wider discussion on the desirability of this option.
1. “The nay-sayers”, The Hindu, Bangalore, 7 May, 2013 https://www.thehindu.com/todays-paper/tp-national/tp-karnataka/the-naysayers/article4690944.ece
2. “Unhappy, Uninformed, or Uninterested?: Understanding ‘None of the Above’ Voting”, by David F. Damore, Mallory M. Waters and Shaun Bowler, Political Research Quarterly, XX(X) 1–13 2011 University of Utah.
3. “None of the above” by Pratap Bhanu Mehta, Indian Express, 2 February 2012 https://www.indianexpress.com/news/none-of-the-above/906690/0
4. “Will voters get to say, ‘None of the Above’, in next Lok Sabha elections?”, Kim Arora, Times News Network,15 May 2013
N. Jayaram is a journalist now based in Bangalore after more than 23 years in East Asia (mainly Hong Kong and Beijing) and 11 years in New Delhi. He was with the Press Trust of India news agency for 15 years and Agence France-Presse for 11 years and is currently engaged in editing and translating for NGOs and academic institutions. He writes a blog: https://walkerjay.wordpress.com/