World Bulletin/News Desk
With the five-week process of elections to the Indian parliament starting Monday, curiosity has been rising over how the world’s largest electorate will exercise a recently acquired and relatively unusual right. For the first time, Indian voters will have the chance to vote for NOTA, None of the Above, in parliamentary elections.
The build-up to the election has been characterized by a strong anti-incumbency feeling against the ruling Congress party and the introduction of the NOTA option has attracted young voters and various social groups. Recent surveys by local media on the campuses of two universities in the eastern Indian city of Kolkata, for instance, have revealed that many of the students who will be first-time voters are reluctant to commit themselves to one or the other major political contenders. Instead, they admit candidly that they are toying with the idea of taking recourse to NOTA.
Kolkata daily 'The Telegraph' commented that its March 20 survey found: “10 per cent of first-time voters believe no one can change the rot in the political system. These youths are either going to use the ‘none of the above’ (NOTA) option on the voting machine or boycott the elections altogether.”
Though this may not be surprising in Kolkata, where campuses are known as hotbeds of radical student politics, the mood extends beyond the city and eastern India. Another mind-gauging exercise organized in the north-western state of Punjab in early April produced startling results. There, the students of Guru Nanak Dev Engineering College were asked to share their thoughts on the upcoming polls. 'The Times of India' Ludhiana edition reported that 83 percent of the students said they would choose the NOTA option, as they felt none of the candidates deserved their votes. In fact, 97 percent demanded that all candidates should be disqualified if 33 per cent of the voters in a constituency opted for NOTA.
For the long-established politicians of all parties, this is a worry even if they display brave faces during public campaigns. There will be 149.4 million new voters, about 20 percent of the total electorate, at these elections and though they are by no means expected vote uniformly, their average presence of 90,000 per constituency leaves poll managers with a great amount of unpredictability to deal with.
NOTA enthusiasts are not only found among the young generation. It has already been tested in the elections for five state assemblies – Delhi, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Mizoram – held in November-December last year. Even without a popular campaign to raise awareness for the option, it mustered 1.6 million voters.
This time, there is more awareness of the procedure, with attempts to make sure rural areas are informed of the option. “We have given a call for giving a NOTA vote as the government is depriving us of the benefits under the Forest Rights Act,” says Lal Singh, an organizer for the forest-dwelling residents of north Bengal’s remote hill regions.
There are many other small groups campaigning for NOTA throughout the country, often with their own humble means and away from the media limelight. Two retired gentlemen, disgruntled over the malfunctioning of the public distribution system, for instance, were found putting up pro-NOTA posters, they had printed using their meager pensions, at railway stations on the southern fringe of Kolkata.
This option has been included following a long campaign and legal battle by civil liberties groups. In 1999 the Association for Protection of Democratic Rights (APDR) initiated a campaign for a “No-choice” option. It also filed public interest litigation demanding the right in Calcutta High Court. The case went to the Supreme Court, but at that time the courts were convinced by the government’s plea that since voting was not mandatory under the Indian Constitution, a citizen could choose to abstain.
The demand, however, was not dropped by the rights organizations, and subsequently, the People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) and others filed fresh petitions in the Supreme Court. The hearings went on for nine long years and on 27 September 2013, the court directed the Election Commission to provide for a NOTA option. A result APDR’s head Dhiraj Sengupta welcomed. “We have achieved a significant victory. Now we would like to take it forward by claiming the right to recall of any elected candidate who fails to deliver and thus loses the people’s trust.”
Last Mod: 06 Nisan 2014, 23:58