Other castes rejecting SC, ST nominees?

Is the None Of The Above (NOTA) option in Indian elections being used to express dissatisfaction against the political class or against politicians of a specific class?

The Hindu’s analysis of data from the five states that first voted with a NOTA option in their December 2013 assembly elections – Delhi, Mizoram, Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan – shows that constituencies reserved for tribals are over-represented among the seats that saw the most NOTA votes. 23 of the 25 constituencies with the highest proportion of NOTA votes are reserved for Scheduled Tribes.

There is just one ‘General’ seat in the 25 seats with the most NOTA votes as a proportion, and just five in the top 50. Just a third of the top 100 seats are in the ‘General’ category. This despite the fact that 400 of the 630 constituencies across the five states were ‘General’ seats.

While Chhattisgarh had the most constituencies in the top 25, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan feature as well. In Delhi, where the reserved seats are for SCs and not STs, four out of the ten seats with the highest NOTA voting were reserved seats, even as just two out of every ten seats overall were reserved for SCs.

The Election Commission of India does not have an explanation for this. “We do not go into why people vote a certain way. That is not our mandate,” an ECI official told The Hindu, asking not to be quoted.

Activists who work with tribals have said that the phenomenon shows the despair of tribals. However, given that tribals tend to be India’s least educated and least empowered people, it would come as a surprise that they, more than educated urban voters, are choosing to exercise this new option in such large numbers.

Sources in two states have told The Hindu that one explanation could be that upper castes in reserved constituencies are choosing to exercise the NOTA option so as not to have to vote for a tribal or dalit, as they were forced to before the option came in. After the assembly election, a BJP spokesperson in Chhattisgarh told The Hindu that OBCs in some tribal constituencies voted NOTA to make the BJP, which they believed was only trying to woo tribals, realise their importance. “The party has realised this and is working on winning back their support,” the spokesperson said.

In Rajasthan, the District Magistrate of a tribal-dominated constituency told The Hindu that members of an agrarian OBC community (which he requested not be specifically named) came to his office the day after the election and told him they had voted NOTA. “The leader of the community told me that everyone was pampering tribals and so they had voted NOTA rather than vote for a tribal,” the DM said, requesting anonymity.

Others disagree with this explanation. “I don’t think that people are consciously voting in this way. It might be that people in these constituencies, who are not very well educated, are simply pressing the wrong button,” Sanjay Kumar, director of the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, and an expert on voter behaviour said.

Madhuri Krishnaswamy, who leads the Jagrit Adivasi Dalit Sangathan in Barwani, Madhya Pradesh, also disagreed. “The truth is that the tribals of this country feel completely hopeless. It is true that information about NOTA has not reached the interiors yet, but those who know might be exercising this option,” she said.

(With inputs from Suvojit Bagchi)

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