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Debate must for none-of-the-above to denote rejection
Sunday December 8, 2013 6:48 PM, Rohit Bansal, IANS

Last month, when a Supreme Court ruling rejected a call for re-poll when the 'none-of-the-above' option wins an election, champions of the right to reject were crestfallen. The results of four assembly elections suggest the option, introduced for the first time, made no real impact. Yet it is the first step, and a major one at that, towards right to reject.

Two months ago, on Sep 27, the Supreme Court laid the ground for a citizen's right to cast a negative vote whereby you and I could press a none-of-the-above (NOTA) button, snubbing all candidates contesting a poll.

This had led to the obvious "what if" mathematical possibility of a NOTA win? The underlying hope was that all political parties will fear NOTA, and the new button enshrined on the electronic voting machine will shame the political leaders from a) fielding a rogue and b) an encore of shame when re-poll will have to be held.

Optimism on both these counts emanated from initial reports that NOTA equals the right to reject!

Alas, that was not. The apex court clarified a month later that if NOTA "wins" there won't be a re-poll. In fact, nothing really will happen except that the candidate with the next highest votes will be deemed the winner.

After the September judgmement, S.Y. Quraishi, chief election commissioner immediately before V.S. Sampath, gave context. Since 2001, the Election Commission has been waiting for a reply on their reference to the Union government to get an okay to include a NOTA in ballot papers. The government has been sitting on this since the last 12 years.

So, why didn't you just stop waiting for the government and simply order a NOTA option in EVMs? Quraishi's reply: "We were like the man trying to cross the street, who asked the policeman if he could. Obviously, the policeman said 'no' and we could do nothing because we have had asked!"

That said, the spirit behind the commission and the court was to foster purity and vibrancy of elections. After all, the concept of negative voting in elections is prevalent in 13 countries.

The idea was also to address a rather silly concept called 49(O) in the present system. Under this rule provided for in the Conduct of Election Rules, 1961 a voter who does not want to cast a vote and wants that to be in the record must come to a polling booth and inform the presiding officer of his intention. The officer, in turn, will make an entry in the relevant rule book after taking the signature of the said elector.

Defacing the ballot paper is a crime, mind you.

In its surveys to assess voter feedback, the commission had found dissatisfaction among voters with this rule since it was bereft of secrecy. Quraishi, in fact, had found voters to simply stay at home negating the objective of increasing voter participation. Those who showed up looking for the 49(O) register were always in danger of being found out by bullies, bolstering unscrupulous elements and impersonators.

#People's Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL), the rights group that had dragged the Union of India to the Supreme Court on this matter, argued that Rule 49(O) violated the constitutional provisions guaranteed under Article 19(1)(a) (Freedom of Speech and Expression) and Article 21 (Right to Liberty). It also violated the concept of secret ballot.

It is significant that the Supreme Court even went to the extent of raising negative voting to the status of a fundamental right. "Not allowing a person to cast vote negatively defeats the very freedom of expression and the right ensured in Article 21, that is, the right to liberty," the Sep 27 order said.

"For democracy to survive, it is essential the best available men should be chosen as people's representatives for proper governance of the country. This can be best achieved through men of high moral and ethical values, who win the elections on a positive vote. Thus, in a vibrant democracy, the voter must be given an opportunity to choose none of the above (NOTA)... which will indeed compel the political parties to nominate a sound candidate. This situation palpably tells us the dire need of negative voting," the court ruled.

On his part, Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister #Omar Abdullah made public his fear that the right to reject will embolden militant groups to herd negative voters to polling stations and embarrass India's election process. Abdullah's specific problem won the day in November, though the premise will be tested only during the next elections in the state.

The election results of the four assemblies, perhaps show that voters do not find the option of NOTA exciting enough, unless it translates into the right to reject as well. In any case, it must form an important component of a debate and action on the larger issue of electoral reforms.

(Rohit Bansal is chief executive and co-founder, India Strategy Group, Hammurabi and Solomon Consulting. The views expressed are personal. Tweets @therohitbansal).

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