In the forthcoming general election, as has become the practice in India, the choice you will probably get to exercise will be between voting for either Tweedledum or Tweedledee. It’s bad enough that it’s barely a choice. Worse still, though, both Tweedledum and Tweedledee may turn out to be murderers or rapists, as has been the reality in some constituencies of late. Vote we must, but the question is for whom, if the choice happens to be between the devil and the deep sea.
Why do we have to choose between two evils? Behind the noisy and colourful facade of elections, political parties decide on which candidates they will field regardless of the background, criminal or otherwise, of the candidate. The most recent example of this phenomenon is from the Tamar constituency in Jharkhand which earned laurels for defeating Shibu Soren in January. What is perhaps not widely known is that Gopal Krishna Patar, who defeated Soren, is an accused out on bail; Patar faces a criminal case under various sections of the Indian Penal Code, including attempt to murder.
What could the voters in the Tamar constituency do if they did not want to vote for either Soren, found guilty of murder in 2006, or Patar? There is no option currently; but there could easily be one. This option is popularly called “None of the above”, or Nota.
Though the idea of Nota captured the popular imagination after the citizen protests in the wake of 26/11, it is not new. The Law Commission of India first recommended it in May 1999, in its 170th report on electoral reforms.
In its report, the Law Commission submitted its recommendation for Nota in combination with the electoral requirement that a candidate gain at least 50%+1 of the votes cast to be declared the winner. These provisions, according to the commission, would go “a long way in ensuring purity of elections, keeping out criminals and other undesirable elements and also serve to minimize the role and importance of caste and religion”.
The report noted that such provisions would achieve two objectives. The first would be “to cut down or, at any rate, to curtail the significance and role played by caste factor in the electoral process… This means that a candidate has to carry with him several castes and communities, to succeed.” This would certainly work to reduce the caste-based fragmentation of the polity and help develop holistic and pluralistic perspectives.
The second objective would be “to put moral pressure on political parties not to put forward candidates with undesirable record i.e., criminals, corrupt elements and persons with unsavoury background… It also acts as a powerful disincentive against voter intimidation.” Given that the last election put 125 candidates with pending criminal cases into the Lok Sabha, discouraging candidates with dubious backgrounds is essential.
There are, no doubt, practical difficulties in implementing these provisions, which the Law Commission observed. “If electronic voting machines (EVM) are introduced throughout the country, it will become a little more easier to implement this,” the report said.
The Election Commission of India supported these suggestions in its recommendations to the government on 10 December 2001, and reiterated then again in a letter from the then chief election commissioner to the Prime Minister on 4 July 2004.
Despite such clear and specific recommendations, and having had electronic voting machines in use for quite a few years, the government has not considered it fit to implement this provision. The Law Commission seems to have foreseen this when it said in 1999 that, “problems arise because of...lack of requisite standards of behaviour and also of cooperation and understanding among the political parties to ensure a peaceful poll. As a matter of fact, the election offences are not decreasing but are increasing, with every passing election.” Technology and a maturing democracy are supposed to make things easier; but it’s the reverse in India.
Voters having to vote without having a real choice is not really democratic.
It is under the above circumstances that an option of “None of the above” or “I do not vote for any of the above candidates” has the potential of giving voters some real choice, thus taking us closer to real democracy. It can nudge political parties to select better candidates. In case the Nota option gets the highest number of votes cast, the law would require repolling, that too with the earlier candidates not being allowed to recontest. There will be some costs to repolls, though much less now with EVMs. But democracy needs and deserves such investments. If the return is an improvement in the quality of candidates, the investment would be well worth it.
Even without a repoll, some moral pressure may be applied on political parties. When the Nota option is repeatedly exercised across India, parties are sure to learn the lesson. The purpose of the exercise is not to ask voters to “not vote”, but rather to nudge political parties to select better candidates.
Jagdeep S. Chhokar is a retired professor of IIM Ahmedabad and a founding member of Association for Democratic Reforms. Comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org