There has been a lot of speculation about the origin and the affectivity of NOTA system that has been implemented in Indian electoral system since 2013. If one looks into the origin of NOTA and how this option came about, then one organization would be at the centre. People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) petitioned the Supreme Court in 2013 and as a result of that particular petition NOTA or ‘right to not vote’ came about.
PUCL recently came to light when Pune police raided and arrested five ‘activists’, who police believe to have a strong connection with the Maoist insurgency. We had earlier reported extensively on PUCL in our first report of this series and laid out how some of the ‘urban Maoists’ raided were part of this organization. Sudha Bharadwaj was the General Secretary of the Chhattisgarh unit of People’s Union for Civil Liberties. Another among those raided, Father Stan Swamy is also associated with the PUCL. In July, a sedition case was filed against him for allegedly inciting tension over the Pathalgadi movement. Gautam Navlakha, who had links with an ISI funded Kashmiri separatist, was associated with People’s Union for Democratic Rights (PUDR) for a long time as an activist, a fraternal organization of the PUCL.
PUCL has a long list of taking stance on ‘societal’ issues which would be perceived as ‘counter-productive’. From their solidarity with the banned People’s Front of India (PFI) to showing solidarity with Ajmal Kasab and Yakub Menon, both convicted terrorists responsible for the death of hundred’s of innocent Indians. It is this PUCL that filed the petition in the Supreme court of India to implement NOTA in Indian electoral system.
It is worth mentioning that this right was acknowledged by the Election commission even before ‘NOTA’ was implemented. The Election Commission in section 49 (O) of the Conduct of Elections Rules, 1961 says that a voter could enter his electoral serial number in Form 17A and cast a negative vote. The presiding officer would then put a remark in the form and get it signed by the voter. This was done to prevent fraud or misuse of votes.
The PUCL petitioned the Supreme Court stating the secrecy of the negative voter’s identity is protected by making the negative voting anonymous. They argued, “The main substance of the arguments of learned senior counsel for the petitioners is that though right not to vote is recognized by Rules 41 and 49-O of the Rules and is also a part of the freedom of expression of a voter, if a voter chooses to exercise the said right, it has to be kept secret. Learned senior counsel further submitted that both the above provisions, to the extent of such violation of the secrecy clause are not only ultra vires but also contrary to Section 128 of the RP Act, Rules 39 and 49-M of the Rules as well as Articles 19(1)(a) and 21 of the Constitution.”
Their argument is based on the idea that inclusion of NOTA will provide a way for the voters to vent out their opposition to the candidates filed by various political candidates and the SC agreed, in a statement, “Negative voting will lead to a systemic change in polls and political parties will be forced to project clean candidates. If the right to vote is a statutory right, then the right to reject a candidate is a fundamental right of speech and expression under the Constitution,” said the presiding bench headed by then Chief Justice of India, P Sathasivam.
The argument in favour of NOTA and how much of it holds up will be dealt with later. What PUCL stated right after the judgment and the run-up to the 2014 general elections is indicative of what the motives behind this petition may have been.
In the run-up to the 2014 elections, PUCL issued a press statement with the heading –
“Lok Sabha Elections, 2014: Fascism, Democracy’s Challenges and Role of Citizens. Vote for Principled Politics: USE NOTA effectively”.
When one reads this statement, it becomes rather evident that their stance on the Indian democracy and role of NOTA seems to be far from the one deliberated on in the Supreme Court hearing.
In this particular press statement, the argument has been changed from the betterment in the filing of candidacy by the political parties and overall betterment of the Indian electoral system to this-
“PUCL is extremely worried that the type of electoral alliances and the total lack of choice to the people of India. The human rights record of none of the major alliances inspires confidence that if they come to power they will respect the rule of law, the Indian Constitution and human rights,”
“The rise of political intolerance is not just a threat to fundamental freedom of right and expression but undermines the very basis of democratic politics – which is the RIGHT TO DISSENT. This is particularly crucial when increasingly corporate interest are controlling policy making and development policies are turning anti-people.”
This insinuates that they clearly lack any respect for the existing democratic setup of the country and the people’s mandate. What more shocking is perhaps the overt emphasis on the presumption that the existing political structure is not adequate or appropriate for the kind of ‘democracy’ PUCL demands.
The more one looks into the tonality of the press statement the more it becomes clearer that there is a grey area regarding ‘right to dissent’. The dissent is not actually directed towards the political parties but the total rejection of the democratic set-up and elections in the country. The words used and the insinuations made by PUCL is eerily similar to the one used by Communist Party of India Marxist Leninist in favour of boycotting elections.
If we step away from the blurring lines between electoral reforms and sabotaging the electoral process that PUCL has drawn, then also the addition of NOTA makes no sense at all. The fundamental purpose of elections and voting is to choose electoral representatives and create a government and the negative voting stands in complete contrast to the very idea and purpose of elections.
If we look at the other argument that it would reduce the criminality of the political parties and force them to change the candidacy policies. There too, this method will not yield any results because the root cause of criminality lies with the structure of funding raised by the political parties. Thus adding a NOTA button will not reduce the criminality within political parties rather it risks increasing it by giving the powerful party an option to manipulate voters of the other party into voting NOTA in order to nullify the winning advantage of the other parties. The same methods which had been used for decades in Indian elections like Liquor, cash, muscle power can very well be used to force people with a certain lineage to vote for NOTA.
In summary, the idea of ‘the right to dissent’ presented by the PUCL seems dubious at best and the overall argument in support of NOTA is a case of preferred outcomes rather than ground-based realities.