NOTA to change politics: Nothing of the sort

Last Updated: Sat, Nov 30, 2013 01:13 hrs

The satraps of every established political party must have rubbed their hands in collective glee when they absorbed the impact of the Supreme Court's none of the above, or NOTA, decree. The Supreme Court hopes NOTA will lead to a "more pure electoral process", with parties vetting candidates carefully.

However, in the absence of follow-up legislation, which the Supreme Court cannot introduce, the effect of NOTA may be the opposite of what is intended. NOTA may actually empower established parties to ignore the weight of public opinion and pick whoever they want. Cadres will be much more important than candidates under the new system.

The Supreme Court judgment, granting NOTA in response to a petition by the People's Union for Civil Liberties, reads in part: "For democracy to survive, it is essential that the best available men should be chosen. This can be best achieved through men of high moral and ethical values who win the elections on a positive vote." If we ignore the probably unintended sexism, NOTA does give "the voter the right to express his [sic] disapproval of the kind of candidates put up by the parties".

Where one disagrees is the Supreme Court's premise that "gradually, there will be a systemic change and parties will be forced to ... field candidates who are known for their integrity". Nothing of the sort might happen.

A voter punching NOTA registers disapproval of all candidates. But there is no threshold where a given percentage of NOTA votes translates into annulled elections. For example, 99 per cent of voters could opt for NOTA, but the candidate who receives the largest share of the remaining one per cent still wins.

If high NOTA occurs, it would resemble low turnout in elections somewhat in effect. Low turnout is often seen in Kashmir, the Northeast and districts hit by left-wing extremism. For example, Srinagar district registered five per cent turnout in the 2002 Assembly elections. Legitimate governments may be based on such statistically farcical results and political pundits hail them as triumphs of democracy.

Every political party has a template for low turnout. Cadre-based parties welcome it. Party workers will get out the committed vote and the committed voter doesn't care who the candidate is. If the uncommitted vote doesn't turn out, even a relatively small committed vote is enough to win.

NOTA will just mean that some of the uncommitted vote dissipates, instead of not turning out. This may actually reduce the chances of a swing against a given candidate. If all candidates are more or less equally disgusting, the party with the best machinery is likely to win more comfortably.

Perhaps the Supreme Court hopes that parties will be shamed into picking better candidates if high NOTA levels are consistently registered? Unfortunately, Indian politicians don't do shame very well. It is possible that, over time, some political party with an established cadre base will try to establish competitive advantage by picking clean candidates.

But I wouldn't hold my breath waiting for this. You cannot build a committed cadre base if you are clean because cadre members don't stay committed without their pound of flesh. And since under NOTA, as it stands, a cadre base is much more important than cleanliness, you won't get clean candidates either.

If legislation was enacted to annul elections when NOTA was, say, higher than the leading candidate's tally, it could indeed have an accelerated cleansing effect. Such an effect would be further enhanced if candidates who had triggered a high-NOTA response were banned from standing again.

But one cannot see the political establishment voluntarily emasculating itself by passing any such legislation. Still, NOTA is a beginning and it will get a good workout in 2013-2014. If there are high-NOTA situations, one can conceptualise mass agitations asking backup legislation. That might be the flavour of the next Satyagraha.

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