The Supreme Court’s verdict directing the Election Commission to allow voters the option of pressing the ‘None of the above’ (NOTA) button has elicited mixed reactions, with some hailing it as a democratic step whose time had already come and others assailing it as being ahead of its time.
The Court has taken the view that the right to vote is meaningless unless voters are allowed to say they aren’t enamoured of any of the candidates in the fray. As a result, their selection of candidates will reflect more seriousness. This is because voters who do not bestir themselves to vote would now exercise their franchise, albeit negative.
Impressive though this logic may be, it is not as if we are going to see a sudden surge of voters coming out in droves and thronging the voting booths, enamoured by the new power in their hands.
The current voter apathy is not necessarily out of disillusionment with candidates; it is also born of laziness.Compulsory voting could be the ultimate remedy though it may smack of highhandedness and pose insurmountable difficulties in implementation.
It is unlikely to be anyone’s case that NOTA would notch up the maximum votes in the first-past-the-post system. But it could cut the votes of the mainstream parties, considering the fact that many voters today willy-nilly vote for a lesser evil out of those in the fray and the real cynics register their protest by not voting at all.
What will happen in the unlikely event of NOTA notching up the highest number of votes? Suppose the Congress has 30 per cent of the votes and the BJP 31, while the rest 39 vote for NOTA. Will this phantom then be declared the negative winner, warranting re-election? And what happens if the stalemate continues for the second time despite change of candidate(s)? Will the Election Commission be obliged to order re-election again and again till the impasse is broken? Or, would the NOTA option be removed in the second round of voting itself?
There may be other imponderables as well.
It must, however, be conceded that NOTA is still less potentially disruptive than the more intrusive ‘right to recall’ practiced in a few countries. In the six cantonments of Switzerland where this right exists, the referendum on recall reportedly could never be held because each time the citizens rising in anger against an incumbent couldn’t drum up the minimum percentage of voters’ support in a signature campaign.
In India, the right to recall could prove even more counter-productive. Mustering the minimum support in a signature campaign to trigger the referendum would not be difficult. But then, the election calendar which is already fairly packed would become a day-to-day event: A signature campaign in some constituency or the other, on top of by-elections on the death or resignation of candidates, would always be going on, keeping the Election Commission more than busy.
What is more, the Election Commission would be at its wits end verifying the genuineness of the signatures, which could clog our court dockets as well.
In comparison, NOTA comes out smelling of roses in terms of its disruptive potential. It is a harmless chocolaty right that would keep the civil liberties groups happy. True, with the average age of the voter steadily on the decline and with the youth looking more for individual candidates with potential to deliver than plumping for party affiliations, it is possible that NOTA might end up victor in quite a few constituencies.
But then, nobody can possibly complain. NOTA is more like prevention, whereas recall is like cure. And prevention is better than cure.
NOTA would also take care of the criticism that the electorate is to blame for voting for the wrong candidate. If despite NOTA, a wrong candidate is elected, the electorate can only grin and bear it till the next polls.
(The author is a New Delhi-based chartered accountant)