Poll bugle having been sounded, political parties have commenced electoral festivities. it is time for loaded jibes, like ‘Chokidar Chor Hai,’ on Social Media (SM) and equally fierce counters like ‘Main Bhi Chokidar’. With about 340 million smartphone users in India, Election – 2019 is likely to be the most digitally-influenced one. Misuse of SM in the democratic process has been a cause of concern in many countries the world over and India is no exception.
Intense media war has already broken out and, in the ensuing din, voters’ reasoned choices have been blurred. Election campaigns in India focus more on personalities than on the real issues, leaving voters utterly confused. Poll pitches have turned so skewed that even during local bodies elections votes are sought more in the name of national leaders than on the merits of the contesting candidates. For long now, our political culture has bred nauseating sycophancy. ‘India is Indira’ or ‘Vote Modi for Strong India’ or “Modi Hai to Mumkin Hai’ are all manifestations of this deep-rooted malice. Unfortunately, media in India, both print and electronic, is in clutches of big corporate houses reducing it to be mere campaign vehicle of the ruling dispensation. Media, in fact, has abandoned journalistic maxim of reporting, questioning, educating and pointing out governance infirmities.
Changing Voter Perception.
In any vibrant democracy, a considered selection of people’s representatives by the voters is a good-governance imperative. Election-2019, unlike in 2014, are least likely to be lamppost elections. Voters have become increasingly aware of the power of their votes. That NOTA (None of the Above) has gained considerable voter popularity is no coincidence. In recent elections, not only did NOTA, in a number of cases, poll more votes than many of the contesting political parties, in many an instance, its vote share was higher than the margin by which candidates won. An analysis of recent Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan assembly elections proves this point. In absence of voters’ power to ‘reject’ the contesting candidate(s) or to ‘recall’ non-performing sitting MPs/MLAs or political will to legislate these provisions in People’s Representation Act, the introduction of NOTA in Indian electoral process is a small but a right step forward. It certainly empowers those voters who feel disenchanted with the existing political culture.
NOTA – ‘Fictional Candidate’.
Previously, a voter could cast a negative ballot under Section 49(O) of the Conduct of Election Rules, 1961. However, this provision was deemed unconstitutional by the Supreme Court, in its judgement in a writ petition filed by People’s Union for Civil Liberties, as it failed to protect voters’ secrecy. Instead, SC directed Election Commission of India (ECI) to provide necessary provisions for NOTA in ballot papers/EVMs. The top court was hopeful ‘that eventually people of high moral and ethical values are chosen as people’s representatives for proper governance of the country’. However, without assigning any ‘electoral value’ to the votes polled by NOTA, this wish remains unfulfilled. It is pertinent to mention here that State Election Commissions of Maharashtra and Haryana, using their plenary powers, have amended the existing laws to give teeth to NOTA in local bodies’ elections. In Maharashtra, if NOTA gets more votes than any of the contesting candidates, re-election is ordered. Haryana has gone a step further by assigning NOTA the status of a ‘Fictional Candidate’ and by instituting a partial ‘right to reject’. In case NOTA gets maximum votes, all losing candidates stand disqualified and re-election is ordered. In any case, this move by Maharashtra and Haryana ECs is a bold reform that could be a trailblazer for other SECs as well as ECI. Hopefully, in future NOTA would be assigned an ‘electoral value’ to be of intended consequence.
NOTA- Instituting Electoral Dissent.
It can be argued that in the absence of any ‘electoral value’, provision of NOTA is redundant. What interests political parties and the contesting candidates is that NOTA provision has no effect on election results thus encouraging the candidates to campaign against it. While instituting the provision of NOTA, ECI seems to have overlooked the spirit of SC judgement wherein it expresses ‘voters must be given an opportunity to choose NOTA…. which will compel the political parties to nominate sound candidates’.Unfortunately, no party in India wishes to transfer political power to the people where it rightfully belongs.
Notwithstanding the criticism, optimists have described NOTA as ‘maturing of India’s democracy’. Power of NOTA to express dissent is clearly visible in reports where entire communities have decided to democratically protest governments that have failed to meet their needs. For instance, there have been multiple cases of entire villages deciding to vote for NOTA due to consistent failure of local governments to meet basic requirements like roads, electricity, potable water etc. A number of groups and individuals have been conducting voter awareness campaigns about NOTA. Recent election results have shown an increasing trend of people choosing NOTA. Even though it is not clear whether elected governments have translated NOTA protests into compensatory action, yet it is a ‘symbolic instrument to express resentment’ in otherwise an irresponsive and insensitive electoral arithmetic.
Internally Displaced Kashmiri Pandits – A Strong Case for NOTA.
Kashmiri Pandits (KP), thrown out lock-stock and barrel from their original places of birth, have conveniently been forgotten by all the political parties. While one end of the political spectrum uses their plight to score political brownie points, the other end ignores their plight as if exodus had never happened. Their insignificant numbers render them politically irrelevant. Even their democratic right to vote has essentially been snatched. Having been forced out of Kashmir at gunpoint three decades back, KPs are coerced to vote for ‘unknown species’ contesting elections from their erstwhile constituencies. Isn’t it ridiculous? Disenfranchisement of KPs was complete when even their right to elect civic body representatives, at places of their current residence, was snatched last year. All this dis empowerment was for political chicanery.
Neither accusing and abusing ‘their’ Nehru for their current plight nor submission to the diktats of hardliners in the Valley would assuage the intense hurt of the KPs. When a political heavyweight accused KPs of not voting for his party, political arrogance and contempt for the community’s democratic right are writ large all over. Opportunists within the community, who seek political patronage, complete this vicious circle of its political marginalization. It is time KPs express their resentment against their political exclusion. What better than to vote for NOTA in upcoming elections and there would be nothing anti-national about that. Choice, however, is always individual.