Crowdsourcing Discontent: We Must Not Ignore NOTA

The extremely consequential R K Nagar elections quickly turned into an internet meme after the BJP candidate, K Nagarajan lost to a ballot button. NOTA or the None Of The Above Button secured 2373 votes while the BJP candidate received 1417 votes. These numbers might seem inconsequential as compared to the huge majority with which TTV Dinakaran won the seat — with 89,000 votes. But this is a sign, if anyone’s observing, for the portrayal of discontent in a democracy that makes decisions on the majority ‘yes’, quietly ignoring the ‘maybes’ and wildly silencing the ‘nos.’ It is a voice of discontent, well within constitutional means, of the choices presented and it’s getting louder.

When NOTA was introduced a couple of months before the 2014 General Elections, it was welcomed but not recommended. Spokespersons of various political parties advised people not to “waste” their votes and to cast it for the “right” candidate instead. That there might be an absence of this “right” candidate, was not acknowledged or accepted. What weakened the power of NOTA further was that it had, and still has, no electoral value. An Election Commission official told a leading newspaper,

“The NOTA option on EVMs has no electoral value. Even if the maximum number of votes cast is for NOTA, the candidate getting the most of the remaining votes would be declared winner.”

In effect, even if the majority pressed NOTA, the second highest majority candidate would still win. The majority would be overlooked. This led to many nationwide debates, most of which remain inconclusive.

For the EC, NOTA was a warning for political parties to revisit their candidates and appoint appropriate ones. For the voters, there was confusion over whether anyone would pay heed to this warning. Yet, in its first wide scale implementation, NOTA didn’t fare badly. In fact it did better than most, including the EC, had expected. Around 60 lakh voters around the country (1.1% of voters) choose the option. It was the 4th largest majority, leaving behind 21 political parties across the nation. Even in Vadodra, where the current Prime Minister, Narendra Modi won a majority, NOTA was the third highest.

The crowd was silently voicing its discontent which unfortunately was buried under the sweeping win of the BJP. If any warning was given at all, it was found drowning under the noise of “ache din.” The conversation on NOTA stopped for good.

Until last week, when it whispered once again. Ironically, into the ears of the same party on its holy ground. After more than two tumultuous years, the Modi factor was put to test in Gujarat again. The elections were eyed and the BJP won a decent majority again, but NOTA was the 4th most popular choice with around 5 lakh votes (1.8% of the total). National parties like the BSP and AAP scored lesser. Discontent was making itself heard again. In 2015 Bihar witnessed a 2.48% go for NOTA — the highest recorded percentage so far.

In a democracy, numbers are crucial, they are indicative and more importantly decisive.

The growing percentage of NOTA votes are for now only newspaper headlines with no effect on the conscience of any party. It’s an active joke, a kind of humour that’s trying to add flavour to an indigestible truth — that the crowd is unhappy with their choice of representation. And in a time where discontent has become the brand of politicians and not the people, NOTA is a weapon, lethal if given full power.

Little by little discontent will be crowdsourced through a ballot button and deaf ears will have begin hearing again.

Written by Fatema Diwan.

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