The Rise of NOTA Power

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What do the protest voters want?

HE MIGHT NOT look the part but Shaik Salauddin has the reputation of a hothead among fellow drivers. His voice is thin and plangent, shirt always pressed and tucked into his trousers, and hair combed with care and precision, from the left, as if he were in a nine-to-five job and not what he is actually: the uninhibited head of the boisterous Telangana Four Wheeler Drivers Association, which has over 30,000 registered members, and the chairman of a collection of taxi unions, the Telangana Taxi and Drivers Joint Action Committee.

When mad with anger, Salauddin says, he is far from being the pushover he might appear. Two years ago, he led 200 drivers who parked their vehicles by the entrance of the state’s legislative Assembly before scooting away from the scene. Although they were briefly arrested—and he still faces charges for that episode—Salauddin recounts that experience with mischievous relish. “We just parked it [at the Assembly’s gate], locked our cars and ran away,” he says. “The police had to move each car one by one. It took them like an entire day.”

Salauddin intended to force the state’s political leaders to come to the aid of drivers of app-based taxi-aggregator firms such as Ola and Uber, who wanted increased fares and better commissions. Salauddin himself has skin in this game. He operated as a driver for both Uber and Ola for six months before he was blacklisted for leading protests. The focus of taxi unions in Hyderabad has been on these issues for the last few years. They have led protest marches, gone on strikes and even come up with plans such as blocking the state Assembly. “But [politicians] just didn’t care. It was like we don’t matter to them at all,” he says.

Late last year, with less than 10 days to go for Telangana’s state election, Salauddin had a brainwave. “[Politicians] treat us like dogs. Like we have no value as individuals,” he says. “So I was just thinking what is the one thing they truly care about?”

For the next 10 days, 70,000-80,000 cabs, a majority of them operating in Hyderabad and nearby areas, had A4 sheets pasted from within on the windows of their taxis. The message read: ‘My vote is NOTA.’ NOTA here referred to ‘None Of The Above’, the option of voting against all candidates in an election. Salauddin claims their campaign did not restrict itself simply to putting up these messages. Taxi drivers also informed their passengers about NOTA and tried to persuade them to vote accordingly.

In about a week, Salauddin claims, he was invited by political parties for discussion. “They wanted us to stop the campaign immediately. They said they would consider our demands but weren’t putting anything on paper. So we didn’t listen to them and carried on the campaign,” he says. “And let me tell you, many people casted NOTA votes [in Telangana]. And in some places with large NOTA votes, politicians lost or won by really tight margins.”

In all, NOTA accounted for 224,000 people or 1.1 per cent of the votes cast in the Telangana state elections. This might not appear substantial, but the victory margin between the winner and runner- up was less than the votes NOTA polled in several constituencies. Had those NOTA votes gone to the runner-up, he would have won, Salauddin says.

“We need NOTA to be treated like a candidate. In case it gets the most number of votes, a re-election has to be allowed and fresh candidates have to contest,” says James John member, Action for Good Governance and Networking in India

Linking the taxi drivers’ campaign to NOTA votes in the state would be akin to connecting several really distant dots. But it highlights a new trend in Indian elections. Just six years since it was introduced, NOTA, or rather the threat of it, is being used in a wide variety of creative ways. In Mumbai, residents of the area Khar and nearby Juhu and Andheri— many of them Bollywood celebrities— are threatening to cast NOTA votes in the upcoming General Election if the under- construction metro line passing by their areas is not changed to underground from an elevated corridor. Elsewhere further north, in the Malvani area of Mumbai’s Malad suburb, 65 housing societies claim they will vote NOTA because of poor water connections and terrible roads. A few years ago, residents of Didihat in Pithoragarh district, Uttarakhand, were threatening to vote NOTA if their town wasn’t converted to a district. The NOTA threat is now used by groups varying from men’s rights’ activists against the provision of Section 498A (the anti-dowry law), under which husbands and family members can be imprisoned under the mere allegation of seeking dowry, to embattled customers whose flats are in limbo despite their having made the payment.

Some might call this use of NOTA arm-twisting. But, according to its proponents, it is a great way of making elections more relevant and governments more responsive.

The NOTA option was introduced in India in 2013 after the Supreme Court ruled in its favour on a plea directed by the NGO People’s Union for Civil Liberties. Before this, the only option for those turned off by the political class was either of staying away or of turning up at the booth to inform the poll officer they did not wish to vote. This wasn’t tough before electronic voting machines (EVMs) were introduced. One could spoil their paper ballots by stamping their vote all over the slip or dropping a blank slip in the ballot box or, on occasion, even writing an opinion on it, often the popular phrase ‘Sab chor hain (they are all thieves)’.

“It’s only by electoral reforms like NOTA, when there is a scare the party might get fewer votes, that it is pressured to put up better candidate,” says Anil Verma head, Association for Democratic Reforms

With EVMs, a button had to be pressed to vote or else one had to inform the poll officer, making the right to secrecy of the vote untenable. ‘Democracy is all about choice… voters in fact will be empowered… [by] this right of negative vote…,’ a bench headed by Chief Justice P Sathasivam said while ruling in favour of NOTA. ‘[NOTA] will be a systemic change and the political parties will be forced to [project clean candidates].’ Two years later, NOTA even got its own symbol: a black cross mark on a ballot paper and not that of a donkey, as demanded by some activists.

“The NOTA option was needed badly,” Mumbai-based activist James John says. “Otherwise, it was really farcical for some of us. We had to go around telling everybody why we did not want to vote for any candidate.” John is something of a NOTA activist. Though formally a member of the NGO Action for Good Governance and Networking in India that works on issues of governance, John travels around in Mumbai before every election to colleges, schools and housing societies, and sometimes even organises protest marches, pushing for greater awareness about NOTA. Earlier during an election, he even had over 100,000 pamphlets urging people to vote NOTA in various languages printed and distributed in his and nearby localities.

John has been casting what he calls ‘the vote to reject untruthful candidates’ since 2002, long before NOTA was introduced. So far, he has cast this vote nine times— thrice each for the parliamentary, state Assembly and municipal elections. He will do so again, he says, for the upcoming parliamentary elections. “In the past, it was such a hassle. I would line up and get my finger inked. But when I would inform the officer I wanted to reject the candidates, they would have no clue about this provision. So I would have to spend a good amount of time explaining them this right, while behind me the people waiting to cast [their votes] were increasing,” he says. In many instances, poll officers would request him to simply cast his vote for ‘any’ candidate. “Why should I cast for ‘any’ one? I would stand my ground and hence managed it. Others had it much harder,” he goes on. “Now it is much simpler. You just show up and press the NOTA option.”

In elections before NOTA was introduced, John would often distribute his phone number so that anyone being refused to cast a negative vote could call and have the poll officer speak to him. “Imagine how ridiculous all of this was. Your votes are supposed to be secret. And you are not allowed to phone anyone from the poll booth. And yet, here I would be, on the phone with an officer explaining why someone was allowed to cast a ‘non-vote’.”

“Politicians wanted us to stop our NOTA campaign. They said they would consider our demands but weren't putting anything on paper. So we didn't listen to them,” says Shaik Salauddin chairman, Telangana Taxi and Drivers Joint Action Committee

Most people assume voter turnouts are often low in cities like Mumbai because people are apathetic and simply don’t want to vote. But, according to people like John, there are many people who in fact do want to vote, just not for the candidates listed. That’s what makes NOTA so important, he says. “Because people can now come and express their opinion by casting NOTA. That way, nobody can cast bogus votes against their names now.”

NOTA IS OFTEN depicted as a wasted vote by politicians across the ideological spectrum. The Rashtriya Matdata Manch, an affiliate of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), according to media reports, plans to launch a campaign against NOTA before the parliamentary elections. Last year, during his annual Dussehra rally speech, RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat made it a point to mention that people should not cast NOTA votes, arguing that when a voter selects the option, he is invariably choosing the ‘available worst against the available best’. Now, only a few days earlier, Bihar Legislative Assembly Speaker Vijay Kumar Choudhary has written to the Election Commission asking for NOTA to be done away with. His argument is that the purpose of an election is to elect someone, not reject.

According to Anil Verma, head of the Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR), a group working on electoral reforms, politicians bad-mouth NOTA because it is beginning to affect them. NOTA, by its appearance, has no bite. While it formalises a voter’s right to reject a candidate and ensures his or her confidentiality, NOTA has no impact on the election result. It could theoretically get more votes in a constituency than any candidate, yet the person with the highest votes still wins the election. “But what you are increasingly seeing is that NOTA is playing a decisive role in tough contests,” Verma says.

According to a 2017 ADR report, over 13.3 million people voted NOTA in the 2014 General Election and state Assembly elections between 2013 and 2017. Over 6 million cast this negative vote in the Lok Sabha polls of 2014. These numbers of course do not take into account state elections that have occurred since. An additional 1.5 million people for instance voted NOTA just in the last batch of state elections in Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan, Telangana and Mizoram. Usually, during every election, NOTA gets a vote share between one and three per cent.

This might not appear large. But increasingly, Verma points out, in constituencies where tight contests takes place, NOTA tends to get more votes than victory margins between winners and runners- up. “You saw that in several places in the last state elections [in 2018],” he says. Just in Madhya Pradesh for instance, quoting the Election Commission data, the Indian Express reported NOTA votes were more than the margin of victory in 22 Assembly constituencies.

NOTA, its proponents argue, is not a wasted vote and though often viewed negatively is actually an expression of a voter’s wish for better candidates. “Look, the way it is now, there is a going rate for party tickets. Anyone who can pay gets a ticket. And that person, if he wins, will look to recover at least 10 times that amount,” Verma says. “It’s only by electoral reforms like NOTA, when there is a scare that the party might get fewer votes [compared to NOTA], that it is pressured to put up better candidates.”

An interesting aside when looking at the way people choose NOTA is that often such votes tend to be highest in Maoist- affected areas (9 per cent of the vote share in Dantewada, Chhattisgarh, for instance went to NOTA compared to the state average of 1.98 per cent last year) and in constituencies where seats are reserved for Scheduled Castes or Tribes. High NOTA votes in reserved seats could mean people are unhappier with politicians there or— as many seem to believe—that people are unhappy voting for candidates from these groups.

As it stands now, NOTA has no teeth. According to its advocates, the Election Commission made a mistake by merely going with the letter of the law and not by its spirit. “We need NOTA to be treated like a candidate,” John explains. “So in case NOTA gets the most number of votes in a constituency, it means people from that area have rejected all contesting candidates. So a re-election has to be allowed and fresh candidates have to contest. This may appear like an expensive proposition, given how each election incurs a high cost to the exchequer. But look at it this way: You declare a bad candidate victorious and he goes and gets involved in scams. Is that more cost-effective?” John asks.

NOTA, its proponents argue, will be revised and given more bite in the coming years. Verma offers a hypothetical situation: a scenario where NOTA gets more votes than any candidate in an election. “By current rules, NOTA can’t be declared a winner. But with what moral justification will the Election Commission announce a winner?” he asks.

NOTA as it exists now is already beginning to get tweaks. Last year, the Maharashtra State Election Commission (SEC) issued an order that if NOTA receives maximum votes in a local body election (panchayat and municipal elections), fresh elections will be held. This order came about because in many panchayat-level elections between 2016 and 2017 in the state, NOTA attracted more votes than those who were eventually declared winners. According to media reports, in a gram panchayat election in Pune district, for example, NOTA received over 85 per cent of the vote share.

The Maharashtra SEC order however stopped short of what NOTA advocates most desire: the forbidding of those same candidates from contesting the new election. Later that year, the Haryana SEC issued a similar order and also went ahead to bar the same candidates from contesting the fresh election.

I ask John why he does this. Why does he take a day out of his schedule in a city like Mumbai every few years to reach a polling booth and stand in a long queue only to not cast a vote? Especially when it has no impact on the election result. One might as well stay home.

Staying at home is a bad idea, John says, because bogus votes are often cast in the names of those who don’t show up. “Besides, I’m not not casting a vote,” he corrects me. “I’m casting a vote saying none of these [candidates] is good enough.”