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NOTA in India: Objective, Importance, Criticism and Suggested Improvements

"If the right to vote is a statutory right, then the right to reject a candidate is a fundamental right of speech and expression under the Constitution."(Hon'ble Supreme Court in PUCL v UOI, 2013)

'None of the above' abbreviated as NOTA, a choice on the ballot papers/EVMs has been a matter of public discourse amongst the Indian electorate since its inception in 2013. NOTA is a sign of disapproval of all the candidates in the fray. Experts have called it a 'toothless tiger' with no implications on the result because a candidate will be declared winner no matter NOTA getting the lion's share of votes cast. In the 2014 Lok Sabha election, Nilgiris of Tamilnadu recorded 46,599 votes for NOTA, subsequently in the 2019 Lok Sabha election, Gopalganj of Bihar recorded 51,660 (5%) votes for the same. The relevance of NOTA has been a hotly debated issue in the 18th Lok Sabha election as a total of 2,18,674 (16%) electorate from Indore constituency of Madhya Pradesh pressed NOTA option and surpassed all the previous records. NOTA has not managed to secure majority votes in any constituency of India either the Lok Sabha or State Assembly elections but It has gained increasing popularity. Recently, a petition has also been filed in the Apex court to make NOTA legally powerful.

When was NOTA introduced in India?

In 2004, the PUCL (Public Union for Civil Liberties) filed a writ petition in the Supreme court asking a mechanism to negative one's vote quoting it as a fundamental right of speech and expression under article 19(1)(a). In 2009, the Supreme Court referred this matter to a larger bench with two other framed queries. In 2013, the Apex court directed the Election commission of India to introduce the 'NOTA' button on the Ballot papers/EVMs in State Assembly & Lok Sabha elections and quoted "having a provision for negative voting is a vibrant part of democracy." NOTA made its debut in the State Assembly elections of Chhattisgarh, Mizoram, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Union territory of Delhi in 2013. Since then the option of NOTA is provided to the Indian electorate in most of the elections including the Panchayat and Municipal elections.

Why has it been a matter of criticism?

Firstly, one of the principal objectives behind introducing NOTA was to put pressure on Political parties not to field tainted candidates in the fray and respect the will of the people in selecting candidates. However, the recent trend shows that the number of candidates with criminal cases is increasing. A report by ADR (Association for democratic reforms) and NEW (National Election watch) suggests that there were about 24% sitting MPs/MLAs in 2004 against whom criminal cases were pending. Unfortunately, the number increased to 44% and 46% in 2019 and 2024 respectively. Thus, NOTA has made no difference as far as criminality is concerned.

Secondly, It does not have a legal consequence or affect the result. If NOTA gets the majority votes, the next candidate will be declared winner. To illustrate the point let's assume NOTA gets 40%, Candidate 'A' 35% and Candidate 'B' 25% of the total votes in a constituency. In such a case Candidate 'A' will be declared winner. Major General (Retd) Anil Verma opined that this option of NOTA should be made more powerful and said 'it is merely a platform to express dissent or one's anger for Political parties to take note and nothing more.'

Thirdly, if a candidate is unopposed in a constituency, he is not supposed to fight against NOTA and is declared a winner. In the general election 2024, the Surat constituency of Gujrat did not go for a poll as the BJP candidate was declared an unopposed winner (due to rejection & withdrawal of nomination of other candidates in the fray). Many voters who may have preferred NOTA over the candidate were derived of their right to vote.

Positive glimpse of NOTA

While analysing the points of criticism, the positive side of NOTA should also be made a count. Firstly, it gives a boost to the public participation in an electoral process. It also gives a platform for a voter to show his/her disapproval of the candidates than not to go to the polling booth. Moreover, it also reduces the probability of bogus voting in a constituency.

Recommended improvements to empower NOTA:
  • If NOTA gets the majority votes in a constituency, there should be re-election and the previous candidates in the fray should be barred from contesting the re-election.
  • While holding re-election, NOTA button should be omitted from the ballot papers/EVMs to avoid a series of elections.
  • Political Parties (National or Regional) who lose to NOTA should bear the expense of re-election.
  • If a political party gets less votes than NOTA, a penalty should be imposed on the party.
  • In a situation of unopposed candidate, there should be an election against NOTA. The electorate must be given a chance to pursue their adult franchise and to participate in the biggest carnival of democracy.

Voting is the formal expression of the will of the people in a democratic country. A voter pressing the NOTA button, implies that none of the candidates in the fray deserves to be elected. The will of the electorate should be reflected as the sovereignty of India lies in the people. When the idea of NOTA was mooted, the objective was to send a message to political parties to think of the candidates, whom they are fielding.

However, the intended goal is not being accomplished despite NOTA getting a considerable amount of votes. In between, the Supreme Court has issued a notice to the Election commission of India on a petition (Shiv Khera v ECI, 2024) seeking its response to make a result 'null & void' and a provision for re-election with a set of fresh candidates, if NOTA gets majority. The present petition also underscored how the purpose of bringing NOTA has not been fulfilled. It is to be noted that a larger turnout of voters can be seen, if NOTA gets its teeth.

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