Jagdeep S Chhokar
Former dean and director-in-charge, IIM, Ahmedabad
ATANU Biswas’ article ‘Novelty gone, NOTA losing favour with voters’ (April 9) deserves to be commended for coming up with innovative ideas such as whether the percentage of NOTA votes will change if NOTA becomes NOTB (none of the below, where this option will appear at the first place on the EVM) or NOTC (none of the candidates; this option will be displayed randomly on the EVM). Biswas rightly says, “This might be an interesting social and behavioural experiment.”
His other conclusion, though tentative, that “NOTA might be losing its popularity…” because it has lost its novelty value, is debatable. An opinion piece in another national daily, published on April 15, uses data from one of the states mentioned by Biswas, and comes to the conclusion: “Today, whether it is the NDA or the UPA, many of their allies periodically raise the banner of revolt against them. These coalitions built with the bricks of personal ambition and political self-interest are fragile and cannot fulfil their responsibilities towards the common man.” This is followed by the inference, “This is the reason why the practice of using NOTA is gradually increasing.”
NOTA came into being as a result of a September 2013 judgment of the Supreme Court. The operative part of the judgment said, “In view of our conclusion, we direct the Election Commission to provide necessary provision on the ballot papers/EVMs and another button called ‘None of the Above’ (NOTA) may be provided on EVMs so that the voters, who come to the polling booth and decide not to vote for any of the candidates in the fray, are able to exercise their right to not vote while maintaining their right to secrecy.”
Implementing the judgment, the Election Commission (EC) of India went ahead with providing the NOTA button on the EVMs. However, the rule for declaring the winner of the election as specified in the Conduct of Election Rules (Rule 64) was not changed, and continued to read, “The returning officer shall,…,declare … the candidate to whom the largest number of valid votes have been given, to be elected.”
The continuance of this provision created a situation where even if NOTA gets more votes than any of the candidates, the candidate who gets the “largest number of valid votes” or more votes than any other candidate is declared elected. This is what has been interpreted, particularly by political parties, to infer that NOTA is useless and a vote for NOTA is a vote wasted.
There is confusion as the EC has implemented the Supreme Court judgment in letter but not in spirit. The spirit of the judgment is highlighted by these lines: “Thus, in a vibrant democracy, the voter must be given an opportunity to choose NOTA..., which will... compel the political parties to nominate a sound candidate.
“When the political parties will realise that a large number of people are expressing their disapproval with the candidates... there will be a systemic change and the political parties will be forced to accept the will of the people and field candidates who are known for their integrity.”
The EC should have asked the government to amend Rule 64 as follows: (a) in case NOTA gets more votes than any of the candidates, none of the candidates should be declared elected, and a fresh election should be held; (b) in the fresh election, none of the candidates in the earlier election, in which NOTA got the highest number of votes, will be allowed to contest.
The above would have been in keeping with the spirit of the SC judgment because it would have ‘compelled’ and ‘forced’ political parties to put up ‘candidates who are known for their integrity.’
These infirmities in implementation by the EC have been removed by the State Election Commissions (SECs) of Maharashtra and Haryana. The Maharashtra SEC issued an order on June 13, 2018, “If it is noticed while counting that NOTA has received the highest number of valid votes, the said election for that particular seat shall be countermanded and a fresh election shall be held for such a post.” This was commendable, but it stopped short of giving NOTA the teeth that the court wanted. It meant that the same candidates could contest the new election, which meant that the result could be the same as earlier.
This lacuna has been corrected by the SEC of Haryana, in an order dated November 22, 2018. This order stated that if “all the contesting candidates individually receive lesser votes than... NOTA,” then not only would “none of the contesting candidates be declared as elected,” but “all such contesting candidates who secured less votes than NOTA shall not be eligible to re-file the nomination/contest the re-election.”
Thanks to the Haryana SEC’s order, NOTA can realise its potential. It is hoped that more and more SECs will follow suit, enabling NOTA to acquire real teeth and achieve what the Supreme Court desired — to make political parties nominate persons of integrity.
And once several SECs do this, one hopes the EC will also follow the spirit of the SC judgment.
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