New Delhi: In a historic verdict, the Supreme Court Friday said for a vibrant democracy, the voter must have the right to reject all the candidates in the fray with the option of "none of the above (NOTA)" in voting machines and on ballot papers.
A bench of Chief Justice P.Sathasivam, Justice Ranjana Prakash Desai and Justice Ranjan Gogoi said, "... in a vibrant democracy, the voter must be given an opportunity to choose none of the above (NOTA) button, which will indeed compel the political parties to nominate a sound candidate. This situation palpably tells us the dire need of negative voting."
"We are of the considered view that in bringing out this right to cast negative vote at a time when electioneering is in full swing, it will foster the purity of the electoral process and also fulfil one of its objectives, namely, wide participation of people," the court said in its judgment.
Democracy is all about choice and this choice can be better expressed by giving the voters an "opportunity to verbalize themselves unreservedly and by imposing least restrictions on their ability to make such a choice", the judgment said.
"By providing NOTA button in the EVMs (electronic voting machines)," the court said, "it will accelerate the effective political participation in the present state of democratic system and the voters in fact will be empowered".
Pronouncing the judgment, Chief Justice Sathasivam said: "When the political parties will realize that a large number of people are expressing their disapproval with the candidates being put up by them, gradually there will be a systemic change and the political parties will be forced to accept the will of the people and field candidates who are known for their integrity."
"Furthermore", the court said, a "provision of negative voting would be in the interest of promoting democracy as it would send clear signals to political parties and their candidates as to what the electorate think about them".
Though right to vote was a "statutory right", the court said this "statutory right is the essence of democracy".
The court said that "free and fair election is a basic structure of the Constitution" that included voter's right to cast his vote "without fear of reprisal, duress or coercion" and protecting his identity.
Thus, the judgment said, "an arbitrary distinction between the voter who casts his vote and the voter who does not cast his vote is violative of Article 14. Thus, secrecy is required to be maintained for both categories of persons".
"Giving right to a voter not to vote for any candidate while protecting his right of secrecy is extremely important in a democracy, the judgment said.
Upholding that voters' right to NOTA and secrecy, the court ruled that rules 41(2) & (3) and 49-O of the Conduct of Election Rules are ultra vires Section 128 of the Representation of People Act and Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution to the extent they violate secrecy of voting.
To buttress its verdict, the court said, "The direction can also be supported by the fact that in the existing system a dissatisfied voter ordinarily does not turn up for voting, which in turn provides a chance to unscrupulous elements to impersonate the dissatisfied voter and cast a vote, be it a negative one."
Noting that the Election Commission too is in favour of introducing the NOTA in the EVMs and ballot papers, the court directed it to to make necessary provision in the ballot papers/EVMs so that voters could exercise their NOTA option.
Asking the poll panel to implement the provision for the NOTA either in a phased manner or at a time with the assistance of the government, the court also asked it to undertake an awareness programme to educate the voters about the NOTA option.
The court also directed the government to provide necessary help for implementation of its direction.