ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846
-A A +A

NOTA and the Indian Voter

V R Vachana (vrvachana@gmail.com) is a researcher based in Bengaluru; Maya Roy (maya.roy09@gmail.com) is a researcher based in Ahmedabad.

This article looks at the use of the “none of the above” option in elections in India from 2013 to 2016 using data from the Election Commission of India to reveal certain patterns of NOTA votes. These patterns signal that Indian voters seem to use NOTA not just to show their disapproval of the candidates in the fray but to express their disenchantment with the existing political system.

Introduced in 2013, “none of the above” (NOTA) option has gradually become a notable part of Indian elections. In the highly charged 2017 Gujarat assembly elections, NOTA gathered 5.5 lakh votes (1.8%), which is more than the votes for the two national parties (National Congress Party and Bahujan Samaj Party), and surpassed the winning margins in over a dozen constituencies. NOTA figured in the round of assembly elections in 2017 with a few peasant organisations in Punjab such as Bharatiya Kisan Union and Naujawan Bharat Sabha urging people to use NOTA in their campaign for raj badlo, samaj badlo (change the system, change the society). Similarly, in Goa, there was an interesting case where the chief electoral officer of the state used his Twitter handle to create awareness about NOTA to increase voter turnout.

Similar pro-NOTA campaigns were part of electioneering in the state elections held in almost all the elections since its introduction. Yet, NOTA polling figures are 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.

An analysis of the limited NOTA voting figures so far indicates four clear patterns. First, reserved constituencies have seen relatively larger number of NOTA votes. This points to the continued social prejudice against political reservation for Scheduled Castes (SCs)/Scheduled Tribes (STs). Second, constituencies affected by left-wing extremism (LWE) have also recorded higher NOTA votes, and here probably it served as an instrument to protest against the state itself.

Third, NOTA figures are comparatively higher in constituencies that have seen a direct contest between the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). One may read this as an indication of the people’s disenchantment with the two mainstream political parties. Lastly, against the widely held perception, we see in this article, NOTA need not lead to higher voter turnout. 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 things they perceive wrong in the political system.

The data used in the analysis is constituency-wise election results made available by the Election Commission of India (ECI). The data of assembly elections since 2013, and the results of Lok Sabha polls 2014 are analysed here.

NOTA in India

NOTA is a choice of negative voting in certain electoral systems to help voters express their dissent for all the candidates competing in an election. It is based on the principle that the spirit of democracy is upheld by giving citizens a platform to voice their dissent while simultaneously participating in the electoral process. Through this provision of negative voting, in principle, it is possible for the voters to send a clear signal of discontent or protest.

NOTA’s entry into India was through judicial means. In 2004, People’s Union for Civil Liberties filed a writ petition in the Supreme Court questioning the constitutional validity of the Conduct of Elections Rules 41 (2 and 3) and 49-O, as these violated the secrecy of a vote. While deciding this petition in September 2013, the Supreme Court directed the ECI to introduce NOTA in electronic voting machines. The court held that:

[T]he fundamental right under Article 19(1) (a) read with statutory right under Section 79(d) of the RP Act is violated unreasonably if right not to vote effectively is denied and secrecy is breached … Article 19 guarantees all individuals the right to speak, criticise, and disagree on a particular issue. It stands on the spirit of tolerance and allows people to have diverse views, ideas and ideologies. Not allowing a person to cast vote negatively defeats the very freedom of expression and the right ensured in Article 21 i e, the right to liberty. (People’s Union for Civil Liberties v Union of India 2013)

The Court thereby raised negative voting to the status of fundamental right. It also went beyond the primary argument of safeguarding secrecy of voter, emphasising the positive impact negative voting can have on cleaning politics and improving participation in electoral democracy. Pursuant to the Supreme Court directive dated 27 September 2014, the ECI introduced the NOTA option with effect from 11 October 2013. Later, on 18 September 2015, the ECI introduced a specific symbol for NOTA to facilitate the voters to exercise the option (ECI 2015).

It is often misunderstood that NOTA allows the right to reject. Even if a situation arises in which NOTA “wins,” it is not calculated as a “valid” vote and hence even if there are 999 NOTA votes out of 1000, the candidate with just one vote would be declared the winner. It is interesting to note that the reason behind the ECI’s suggestion to have NOTA was not to institute the right to reject. As expressed by S Y Quraishi, former Chief Election Commissioner, the aim of the ECI through NOTA “was to ensure the secrecy of the voter wanting to make a choice that amounts to abstention and also to ensure that nobody casts a bogus vote in his place” (Quraishi 2013). 

Trends

The NOTA button saw its debut in the 2013 assembly elections held in five states: Delhi, Chhattisgarh, Mizoram, Rajasthan, and Madhya Pradesh. In these states 16,82,024 voters opted for NOTA that constituted 1.85% of total votes polled. The average NOTA vote share dropped to 0.95% in the 2014 assembly elections held in the eight states of Haryana, Jharkhand, Andhra Pradesh, Sikkim, Odisha, Arunachal Pradesh, Jammu and Kashmir, and Maharashtra. It increased to 2.02% in the 2015 assembly elections held in Delhi and Bihar. While Delhi polled a mere 0.4%, 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, the NOTA vote share dropped again to 1.6% with Tamil Nadu polling the highest of 2.94% and Kerala, the lowest of 0.53%.

In the 2014 Lok Sabha polls, 59,99,247 voters opted for NOTA which was 1.1%
of total votes. Puducherry polled the highest NOTA (3%) in Lok Sabha elections. In 17 states/union territories, the number of NOTA votes was above the national average in Lok Sabha elections. There is variation in the NOTA votes polled by the states in assembly elections in comparison with the NOTA polling of these states in the Lok Sabha elections (Table 1).

Across elections, the number of NOTA votes polled was larger than the winning margin in several of the constituencies. This was the case in 55 out of 629 constituencies across four states that went to the polls in 2013. In 2014, 62 out of 1,079 constituencies across nine states had NOTA exceeding the winning margins. In the 2015 assembly elections, this was true for 21 out of 313 constituencies, and in 2016, for 62 of 824 constituencies. In the Lok Sabha elections, NOTA votes exceeded the winning margin in 24 of 543 constituencies. 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.

Early Indications

In general, there has been a higher use of NOTA in the constituencies reserved for SCs/STs. In the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, the top five constituencies in NOTA votes were all reserved constituencies (Figure 1, p 29). These are Bastar (5.03%) in Chhattisgarh, Nilgiris (4.98%) in Tamil Nadu, Nabrangpur (4.34%) in Odisha, Tura (4.1%) in Meghalaya, and Dahod (3.58%) in Gujarat. Four constituencies shown in Figure 1, namely, Nilgiri, Nabrangpur, Tura, and Ratlam are left-wing extremism (LWE) affected areas.

In the 2013 assembly elections, 15 reserved constituencies occupied top slots in NOTA votes (Figure 2). The highest NOTA was recorded in Bijapur (10.15%) followed by Chitrakot (9.09%), Dantewada (8.93%) in Chhattisgarh, Junnardeo (6.05%) in Madhya Pradesh, and Narainpur (5.98%) in Chhattisgarh. In the 2014 assembly elections as well, five reserved constituencies were at the top in NOTA votes (Figure 3). Gadchiroli (10.8%) in Maharashtra polled highest NOTA followed by Jharigam (6.11%) in Odisha, Aheri (4.86%), Kalyan Rural (4.68%) in Maharashtra, and Jagnathapur (4.43%) in Jharkhand. Of the 55 assembly constituencies where NOTA votes exceeded the winning margin in the 2013 elections, 29 were reserved constituencies.

 

 

Assembly elections in 2014 saw 26 reserved constituencies among the 62 constituencies where number of NOTA votes were higher than the winning margins. In the 2015 assembly elections two SC constituencies from Bihar, Kusheshwar Asthan (6.18%) and Chenari (5.88%) featured at the top. This trend was not stark in the 2016 assembly elections, but two reserved constituencies, Krishnarayapuram (5.64%) in Tamil Nadu, and Nagarkata (4.37%) in West Bengal, were among the top 15.

In the 2014 Lok Sabha polls, six reserved constituencies figured among 24 constituencies where number of NOTA votes were higher than winning margins. The preponderance of NOTA votes in reserved constituencies seem to be a reflection of the resentment among the general category voters about the requirement of having to choose an SC or ST candidate.

However, in the 2015 and 2016 elections (Figures 4 and 5), the higher percentage of NOTA is not specific to reserved constituencies. In fact, only two and four reserved constituencies in 2015 and 2016 respectively have been present amongst the top 15 constituencies with the highest NOTA votes.

 

Voters in regions affected by LWE have shown relatively greater preference to NOTA. In the 2013 assembly elections, Bijapur (10.15%), Chitrakot (9.09%), Dantewada (8.93%), Kondagaon (5.98%), Konta (5.91%), Mohla Manpur (4.95%) of Chhattisgarh figured in the top constituencies going by the number of NOTA votes polled. All these constituencies have been affected by LWE. The assembly constituencies of Gadchiroli (10.8%), Jharigram (6.11%), Kalyan Rural (4.68%), Jangnathpur (4.43%), Chatra (4.25%), Umarkote (3.63%), and Chattarpur (3.43%) that figured in the list of top NOTA polling constituencies in the 2014 elections are also from LWE affected regions.

The trend continued in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls elections with Bastar (5.03%), Nilgiris (4.98%), and Nabrangpur (4.34%) polling the highest percentages of NOTA votes polled. In the 2015 assembly elections, there were no LWE constituencies that went to polls. In the 2016 assembly elections, the LWE effected constituencies of West Bengal like Binpur (2.97%), Raghunathpur (2.6%), featured in the top 15 constituencies that had relatively high levels of NOTA.

In the 2016 assembly elections, West Bengal is the only state with LWE constituencies that went to polls. It is worthwhile to note that although voters from these LWE constituencies resorted to NOTA, it has been much lower than in case of other LWE constituencies in prior elections. This pattern could be because of the growing suppression as well as measures that encourage the surrender of Naxalites by the Mamata Banerjee government. Hence, the use of NOTA as a mode of protest might have been low.

Given the disaffection among the people in these areas against the Indian state, these numbers are expected. Interestingly, however, these voters have used the democratic means of NOTA to express their resentment rather than boycotting the polls. They may be using NOTA to remind the state about their presence.

Across elections, there is a higher usage of NOTA in states where the Indian National Congress and the BJP were engaged in a direct contest. The clear examples are Madhya Pradesh (1.89%), Chhattisgarh (3.1%), Jharkhand (1.78%) and Rajasthan (1.9%). Bihar, which registered 2.49% NOTA votes also saw a two-way contest between the BJP and the Congress-backed mahagathbandhan. In contrast, Delhi, which has seen three elections since the introduction of NOTA has consistently polled less than 1% NOTA votes. Here, the Aam Aadmi Party with no baggage of a political past offered an alternative to the mainstream political parties to the voters. This may be an indication of people’s disenchantment with the two mainstream parties and preference for a strong credible alternative.

The analysis of the Lok Sabha election results shows that there is a negative correlation between the number of independent candidates and NOTA votes polled. In the 2013 assembly elections, Manipur, Chhattisgarh, and Rajasthan showed a similar negative correlation between NOTA polled and the number of independent candidates. This was also true for Andhra Pradesh, Jharkhand, Sikkim, and Maharashtra in 2014. The same is seen in the 2015 assembly elections in Bihar. In 2016, only West Bengal has shown a positive correlation between NOTA and the percentage of independent candidates. Both Kerala and Puducherry have shown a negative correlation between NOTA and the total number of candidates. This could be because a larger number of independent candidates would mean more choices to the voters, leading to decline in NOTA polled. 

Higher Voter Turnout?

A popular perception that was also expressed by the Supreme Court in its judgment was NOTA’s potential to increase voter turnout. Available literature hardly indicates anything on this. The experience in other countries’ voting shows mixed results.

Chile discarded compulsory voting in 2013 and voter turnout declined drastically from 87.67% in the 2009 elections to 49.25% in the 2013 parliamentary elections (IDEA 2014). The state of
Nevada in the US which instituted negative voting in 1976 has interestingly seen a decline in voter turnout since the introduction of negative voting (Katju 2013). In Bangladesh, negative voting option was introduced in 2008 with the right to reject. Voter turnout saw a dramatic rise in the subsequent parliamentary elections reaching 85.26% but declined drastically to 51.37% in the 2014 election (IDEA 2014).

Voting trends in India suggest that NOTA need not necessarily drive up voter turnout (Table 2). In the Lok Sabha elections, NOTA had no correlation with voter turnout. In the assembly elections, except Sikkim and Maharashtra, no other state showed any significant relationship between NOTA and voter turnout. While Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh showed a positive correlation, Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, and Haryana showed a negative correlation. In the 2016 assembly elections three states—Tamil Nadu, West Bengal, and Puducherry—out of five showed a significant negative correlation with NOTA percentage.

Conclusions

The NOTA performance in India has not been subjected to any academic analysis possibly because the numbers are low. As a significant tool to express dissent through electoral participation, it is worthwhile to capture the early indicators and patterns in NOTA usage. The trends so far show that at least a small number of Indian voters have come to see NOTA as an instrument of protest against many things that they believe is problematic with the political system of the country. However, it 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.

References

Election Commission of India (2015): “Symbol of None of the Above (NOTA) Option,” New Delhi, http://pib.nic.in/newsite/PrintRelease.aspx?relid=127022.

IDEA (2014): “Voter Turnout,” International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, http://www.idea.int/data-tools/question-view/521.

Katju, M (2013): “The ‘None of the Above’ Option,” Economic & Political Weekly, Vol 48, No 42, pp 10–12.

People’s Union for Civil Liberties v Union of India (2013): Writ Petition (Civil) No 161 of 2004,
Supreme Court judgment dated 27 September 2013.

Quraishi, S Y (2013): “Pressure of a Button,” Indian Express, 3 October.

Updated On : 14th Feb, 2018

Comments

(-) Hide

EPW looks forward to your comments. Please note that comments are moderated as per our comments policy. They may take some time to appear. A comment, if suitable, may be selected for publication in the Letters pages of EPW.

Back to Top