Three years, one Lok Sabha election and four rounds of Assembly elections have passed since the introduction of ‘None of The Above’ (NOTA) option in the Indian electoral system. The 2016 Assembly elections also saw some active canvassing for NOTA, which allows voters to express their dissent against all the contestants. In Kerala, a group of women activists hit the road urging people not to elect any candidate if no woman was present in the fray. In Tamil Nadu, a youth group campaigned for NOTA as a protest vote against corruption.
NOTA polling figures are still small. On an average, the maximum NOTA vote share has not crossed 2.02% of the total votes polled in any election cycle. The perceived cynicism of Indian voters against the political class thus seems exaggerated. However, it is worthwhile to look at the patterns of NOTA voting to find out how the voters have used this option of negative voting.
NOTA was introduced in India following the 2013 Supreme Court directive in the People’s Union for Civil Liberties v. Union of India judgment. Thus, India became the 14th country to institute negative voting. However, NOTA in India does not provide for a ‘right to reject’. The candidate with the maximum votes wins the election irrespective of the number of NOTA votes polled.
NOTA button saw its debut in the 2013 Assembly elections held in four States — Chhattisgarh, Mizoram, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh and the former Union Territory, Delhi. In these States and Delhi, NOTA constituted 1.85% of the total votes polled. The average NOTA vote share dropped to 0.95% in the 2014 Assembly elections held in eight States — Haryana, Jharkhand, Andhra Pradesh, Sikkim, Odisha, Arunachal Pradesh, Jammu & Kashmir and Maharashtra. It increased to 2.02% in the 2015 Assembly elections held in Delhi and Bihar. While Delhi polled a mere 0.40%, Bihar saw 2.49% of NOTA votes, which remains the highest NOTA votes polled so far in any State in Assembly elections. In the 2016 Assembly elections held in Assam, West Bengal, Kerala, Puducherry and Tamil Nadu, NOTA vote share dropped again to 1.6%. In the 2014 Lok Sabha polls, NOTA constituted 1.1% of the total votes.
Across the elections, the number of NOTA votes polled was larger than the winning margin in 261 Assembly constituencies which went to the polls since 2013, and in 24 constituencies in the Lok Sabha elections. One can argue that in these constituencies the NOTA votes did make a difference to the election results assuming that in the absence of this option a majority of NOTA voters would have preferred one or the other candidate in the fray.
Some early pointers
A quick analysis of NOTA usage in all elections so far does suggest some interesting early pointers. First, reserved constituencies have seen a relatively larger number of NOTA votes, which points to the continued social prejudice against political reservation for SC/STs. Second, constituencies affected by left-wing extremism have also recorded higher NOTA performance and here probably it served as an instrument of protest against the State itself. The Assembly constituencies of Gadchiroli, Jhargram, Kalyan Rural, Jagannathpur, Chatra, Umarkote and Chhattarpur figured in the list of top NOTA polling constituencies in the Assembly elections of 2014, while in the Lok Sabha elections, Bastar, the Nilgiris and Nabarangpur occupy three top slots in terms of NOTA votes polled. Given the disaffection among the people in these areas against the Indian state, these numbers are expected. At the same time, it is important to note that these voters have used the democratic means of NOTA to express their resentment rather than boycotting the polls outright. Last, NOTA figures are comparatively higher in those constituencies which have seen a direct contest between the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party. One may read into this some indication of the people’s disenchantment with two mainstream political parties and yearning for alternatives. Overall, Indian voters seem to be using NOTA not just to show their disapproval of the candidates in the fray but to express their protest against many things they perceive wrong in the political system.
The early trends of NOTA need to be explored further with more elaborate statistical and ethnographic analysis. So far, a small number of Indian voters have come to see NOTA as an instrument of protest. This electoral option will become a meaningful means of negative voting only if it becomes a ‘right to reject’ rather than being a symbolic instrument to express resentment as it is now. A PIL has already been filed in Madras High Court seeking the full right to reject in place of NOTA.
V.R. Vachana and Maya Roy have recently completed their post-graduation from Azim Premji University, Bengaluru and are working as researchers