*** Say NO to “None of the Above” idea by Barun Mitra ***
In the aftermath of the terrorist strike in Mumbai on 26/11/2008, many people expressed their anger and frustration at the political leadership. An idea that has gained new currency has been the decade-old proposal to introduce a negative option in the ballot – “None of the Above”, or simply the ‘No Vote’, to express our lack of confidence in politicians as such. Even the Supreme Court has called for a larger bench to decide on a recent PIL filed by the PUCL, asking for the introduction of the ‘No Vote’ in the ballot. The Election Commission of India has endorsed the idea too.
But the road to hell is often paved with good intentions. Thus, while sharing the sentiments of those who feel disfranchised and frustrated by politics as usual, I propose that we say NO to the idea of the ‘No Vote’. This is an idea that is not only undemocratic, but is actually anti-democratic in principle.
It is based on a gross misunderstanding of our democratic institutions and electoral politics. Finally, the implications of the ‘No Vote’ have hardly been thought through.
I am afraid this may sound too provocative to some.
But the whole idea is to provoke and encourage a vigorous discussion on all aspects of this issue. This is really necessary if we are effectively to assess the functioning of our democratic institutions, and then propose real reforms to improve on the current state of affairs.
The second reason I would like to be provocative is because I don’t look at democracy as a system where the majority rules. Rather, democracy is a system where minority views need to be protected so that they have the opportunity and freedom to persuade people and peacefully win others to their side, so that today’s minority view point has the potential to become the dominant opinion of tomorrow.
First, we need to take a look at the idea of representative democracy. In large countries, and with increasingly sophisticated and nuanced rules of governance, direct democracy as seen in ancient Greece is hardly the appropriate mode of politics and governance. In a referendum, voters can decide for or against a specific motion; however, when laws are set in a legislative chamber, based on debate and voting by elected representatives, the voter’s voice can only be represented, indirectly, by the legislator. By refusing to vote for a legislator, the eligible voter is, in effect, abstaining from participation in the entire political process.
We saw in the last few years, how people in different countries of the European Union, repeatedly voted ‘No’ on the question of the proposed European constitution. But that ‘No Vote’ was not against the idea of the representative democracy, but a vote against the proposed continental constitution. This gave a clear signal to the elected representatives of the climate of opinion prevailing in many parts of Europe.
A ‘No Vote’ on the ballot aimed at electing the representatives themselves, however, will only undermine the legitimacy of the process of representative democracy itself.
Let us extend the argument further. What would be the implications of such a ‘No Vote’ against the candidates contesting in the election in a constituency? Firstly, should the election be cancelled if the ‘No’ wins more vote than the candidates on the ballot? Or should re-polling be ordered only if 51% or more of the voters express lack of confidence in the existing slate of candidates? Suppose a fresh vote is ordered, should the previous set of candidates be allowed to stand again? In case the ‘No Vote’ turns out to be the dominant sentiment of the citizens in a constituency or a country, who would actually bear the responsibility for governance? Should the existing set of politicians just continue in office till the political deadlock over ‘No Vote’ is broken? Or should an un-elected bureaucracy or nominated technocracy be asked to take over the reins of political power?
These are not rhetorical questions. Recently, Bangladesh held its election for national Parliament after a two year stint by a military backed technocratic government. (According to Bangladeshi constitution, an interim non-political government is to over see the national election within a span of three months.) On local newspaper, TV channels and at almost every polling station, there were official advertisements and posters, informing people about the new choice on the ballot, the ‘No Vote’. On the day of the ballot, the voters gave a decisive verdict. Across the country, over 80% turn out was recorded, but the ‘No Vote’ totaled a fraction of 1% of the votes polled. The highest tally for the ‘No Vote’ came in some individual polling booths (not even entire constituencies). These were booths in areas where the elite and educated of Dhaka reside, and the ‘No Vote’ ranged between 5 and 10%.
This was a telling lesson for the Bangladeshi intelligentsia, many of whom had advocated the ‘No Vote’. The verdict of the people only exposed the wide divide between them and the ordinary voters – who turned up in large numbers on polling day, in the hope of a better democratic future.
We the intelligentsia, may not have the capacity to win the confidence of our fellow citizens, and win at the ballot. But that is no reason for us to try and delegitimise representative democracy, or worse, seek to depoliticize political democracy.
This brings me to the last of my three points of criticism of the ‘No Vote’. It has been repeatedly said that our democracy has become unrepresentative, unresponsive, and our politics has been devalued and even debased. There is no doubt, that there is a much more than a grain of truth in those accusations.
As Winston Churchill is quoted as saying, “It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government – except all the others that have been tried.”
The problems of democracy can only be dealt with even more democracy, and not by short circuiting it.
Take the argument that Indian democracy is unrepresentative, because a typical representative can get elected with about 35% of the vote, in the winner take all first-past-the-post electoral system that we have inherited from the British, and made it our own. Indeed, there are instance, when a winning candidate may get less than even 25% of the total votes polled. If we assume that in a typical election about the half of those registered to vote actually do cast their ballot, this would be mean it is possible to win with the support of barely 12% of the voters in a particular constituency.
Is this low threshold a problem or strength of our democracy? In my view, this is perhaps the single biggest strength of our electoral system. The low threshold gives almost every candidate who wants to contest a hope that electoral success is not an impossible dream. This is perhaps one of the reason why increasing number of people contest the elections, and so many parties vie for a place. And this is perhaps also the reason why it is so difficult for sitting legislators to get re-elected. At just over a third, India has among the lowest reelection rate among established democracies anywhere in the world.
If we the intelligentsia, fail to win the support of even so few or our fellow citizens in our own constituencies, should we blame the electoral process, should we blame the voters for their follies, or should we ask ourselves why are we so disconnected from our own people? Is it really fair to expect our fellow citizens who may spend a few hours or to cast their ballot, to actually go to the polling station and cast his vote for the “No”? Do we really understand why so many poor people vote?
Another criticism we hear is that none of the candidates in a constituency may be suitable, because some of them may be tainted by charges of corruption and crime. So a ‘No Vote’ would be an expression of collective lack of confidence about the choices on offer. However, in a typical constituency these days, there are more than 10-12 candidates from different political parties and many independents. Since majority of the candidates will not be ‘tainted’, it should be eminently possible to support some of these against the tainted ones.
New political parties, and concerned citizens, are free to enter the fray and offer themselves as possible alternatives. With such low entry barriers, it is reasonable to think that if real alternatives are offered to the voters, and imagination of the voters captured, then voters are likely to make an informed choice. So an attempt to reject all the choices on offer is not so much of a lack of confidence in the slate of candidates on offer, but a lack of our own confidence in ourselves to enter the fray, and lack of confidence in our fellow citizens’ capacity to make a better choice.
As the world gets ready to watch in wonder, yet one more time, the amazing experience of electoral democracy in action in India this summer, we the citizens of the world’s largest democracy might be much better off pondering why do people who vote in such large numbers do take the trouble of voting at all? Why do they hold their cards so close to their chest that even professional pollsters and politicians find it so difficult to decipher the public mood till after the election?
As we head in to the 15th general election, rather than calling for the ‘No Vote’, we will do much better if we spend a little effort at understanding the fundamental basis of the largest democracy in the world. We may yet discover the secret of connecting to our people, of ways of reaching out to our fellow citizens with a new political message of revival. If we succeed, then rather than the “No”, we may suddenly find ourselves saying “Yes” to the democratic miracle that is India, and take the political plunge to wash away the ills that affect our system.
*** End ***
UPDATE: Barun is the Founder and Director of the Liberty Institute – and involved in a number of other laudable initiatives including EmpoweringIndia. My apologies for forgetting to mention this before.
UPDATE: Some of you will also enjoy reading this post: “Un-electing” our leaders – Chhattisgarh shows the way
UPDATE II: Re. Section 49-O (courtesy Sanjeev Sabhlok)
49-O. Elector deciding not to vote
– If an elector, after his electoral roll number has been duly entered in the register of voters in Form-17A and has put his signature or thumb impression thereon as required under sub-rule (1) of rule 49L, decided not to record his vote, a remark to this effect shall be made against the said entry in Form 17A by the presiding officer and the signature or thumb impression of the elector shall be obtained against such remark.
This is under the Conduct of Election Rules 1961
Pl. note that there is no record published of these votes. If a majority vote under 49(O), that does not mean the election is re-held.