Indians love acronyms. If I had joined the A to Z challenge early enough, my first post might well have been A is for acronyms. Before coming to India, I worked as a technical editor in IT and oil and gas, two disciplines whose writers love acronyms. Yet, I found myself unprepared for the sheer volume of acronyms I encounter in India. Nowhere has that volume expanded more rapidly than in Indian politics. Every party has an acronym. Some parties even have two. For example, the Indian National Congress (the current ruling political party) is referred to as both INC and Congress.
Editor’s note: Technically, Congress isn’t an acronym, but you get the idea.
It should come as no surprise that one of the most fascinating aspects of the election fever gripping the country revolves around an acronym: NOTA. NOTA stands for “none of the above.” For the first time in a national election, Indian voters can choose to cast their ballots for NOTA. This option is seen as a ground-breaking step in democratic reforms. Why?
First, let’s understand what NOTA is, and what it isn’t.
When I first heard about the NOTA option, I thought it worked like the option suggested by NOTA.org, a voting rights organization in the US:
If that option gets more votes than any candidate for the office, then no one is elected to the office; instead, a follow-up by-election with new candidates must be held to fill that office, until a candidate wins a plurality of votes among all other candidates including “None of the Above.”
Evidently, that’s not how the Indian NOTA option works.
From the Election Commission of India (ECI) press release (28 October 2013) about the NOTA ruling by the Indian Supreme Court:
[The election commission must] provide a NOTA option on the EVM [electronic voting machines] and ballot papers so that the electors [i.e. voters] who do not want to vote for any of the candidates can exercise their option in secrecy.
[…As] per the provisions of clause (a) of Rule 64 of Conduct of Elections Rules, 1961, read with Section 65 of the Representation of the People Act, 1951, the candidate who has polled the largest number of valid votes is to be declared elected by the Returning Officer. Therefore, even if the number of electors opting for NOTA option is more than the number of votes polled by any of the candidates, the candidate who secures the largest number of votes has to be declared elected.
To sum up: A NOTA vote is not a valid vote. The candidate with the most votes still wins, even if NOTA wins more votes than any single candidate.
Next, let’s look at why NOTA is considered a necessary innovation.
The key word in the quote from the ECI press release is “secrecy.” In a country where so many things are done in full public view, voting is one of the few actions that must remain private and secret. India Today published a fascinating article explaining the need for NOTA. Traditionally, paper ballots have allowed Indian voters to secretly abstain from voting. In a paper ballot system, a voter can simply place a blank ballot in the box or write “sab chor hain (they are all thieves)” on the ballot to indicate the voter consciously elected not to vote. Such abstinence occurred particularly when a voter felt pressure from a third-party to vote a certain way. To the third-party, it looked as though the voter had cast a ballot. With an electronic voting machine (EVM), however, a beep indicates that the voter has cast a ballot. Everyone within earshot of the voting booth can hear the sound, making it impossible for the voter to secretly refuse to vote. For Indians, the refusal to vote (and the subsequent rejection of all candidates) is seen as just as important as the right to vote itself.
Finally, let’s look at why a voter would go to all the effort to walk into a voting booth and refuse to vote for any candidate.
In the US, we abstain from voting by not going to the polls in the first place. If we don’t like any of the candidates, we simply don’t participate in the process. I am beginning to think Americans take the right to vote terribly, terribly for granted. Indians don’t. As the India Today article argues, non-participation is not an option for a conscientious and responsible citizen.
For more information about frequently asked questions about NOTA, see the ADRIndia.org FAQ document.