NOTA Toothless Without Right To Reject, Say Experts

Introduced in 2013, the NOTA option on electronic voting machines has its own symbol - a ballot paper with a black cross across it.

After 10 years of introduction of the NOTA, the number of voters choosing it still remains low

More than 10 years after a Supreme Court judgement paved way for introduction of the NOTA button on EVM for polls, the number of voters choosing it still remains low, with the experts dubbing it as a "toothless tiger" with no implications on the results.

NOTA (None of the Above) was introduced in India through the Supreme Court's judgement in September 2013. The need to introduce NOTA was felt to discourage the parties from fielding tainted candidates. The Supreme Court directed the Election Commission to make necessary provision in the ballot papers/EVMs so that the voters can decide not to vote for any of the candidates in the fray.

Introduced in 2013, the NOTA option on electronic voting machines has its own symbol - a ballot paper with a black cross across it. After the Supreme Court order in September 2013, the Election Commission added the NOTA button on the EVMs as the last option on the voting panel. One ballot unit has 16 buttons.

Before the apex court order, those not inclined to vote for any candidate had the option of filling what is popularly called form 49-O. But filling out the form at the polling station under Rule 49-O of the Conduct of Elections Rules, 1961, compromised the secrecy of the voter.

However, even as NOTA has secured over 1.29 crore votes in the state assembly elections and the Lok Sabha elections combined in the last five years, the number of candidates with criminal records has increased in both the general and the assembly elections.

According to a report by Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR), the share of MPs with declared criminal cases against them has been increasing in the last decade. While 30 per cent elected MPs had criminal cases against them in 2009, which went up.

Of the 543 winners analysed by the ADR in the 2009 Lok Sabha elections, 162 (30 per cent) had declared criminal cases against them, with 76 (14 per cent) had serious criminal cases against them. In 2019, the share of MPs with criminal and serious criminal cases increased to 43 per cent and 29 per cent.

"NOTA has made no difference as far as criminality is concerned, in fact the number of candidates with criminal cases has increased," Major General (Retd) Anil Verma, Head of ADR, told PTI. "The concept of NOTA was that some pressure would be on the parties not to field tainted candidates. It has not happened," he said.

Overall in different state and general elections, votes polled on NOTA have been between .5 per cent to 1.5per cent, according to data compiled by the ADR. It secured around 1.06 per cent votes in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, and among states, highest was when it got 1.98 percent of the total votes in the 2018 Chhattisgarh Assembly polls. The lowest number of votes NOTA in the Lok Sabha was 100 votes in Lakshadweep, and among the state polls, it secured the lowest percentage of vote share - 0.46 percent in both the Delhi State Assembly Elections, 2020, and the Mizoram State Assembly Elections, 2018.

"Unfortunately, it turned out to be a toothless tiger. It merely provided a platform to express dissent or one's anger for political parties to take note and nothing more," Maj Gen Verma (Retd) said.

He, however, pointed out that overall, the percentage of NOTA votes in seats reserved for the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribe has been slightly higher, which may indicate there are more grievances among these groups.

"In the reserved constituencies, we have seen the percentage of NOTA votes are higher. Perhaps the tribals and SCs have more grievances so they go in larger numbers for NOTA," he said.

Constituency wise, NOTA has secured as high as 27,500 votes in Maharashtra's Latur Rural constituency, a seat reserved for the SC community, over 13 per cent of the total votes. NOTA got the second spot, with Congress' Dhiraj Deshmukh winning with over 67 per cent of the total votes.

In 'Red Alert Constituencies', the seats with three or more candidates with criminal cases contesting the elections, NOTA secured 26, 77,616 votes (26.77 lakhs) in the state assembly elections since 2018. It ranges from 1.63 per cent in Bihar in 217 red alert constituencies to 0.43 per cent in Delhi.

In the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, the highest number of NOTA votes (51,660) were polled in Bihar's Gopalganj, another reserved SC constituency, where it secured the third spot getting 5.03 per cent of the total votes.

Axis India chairman Pradeep Gupta said there is a requirement to give more teeth to the NOTA option. "I believe that candidates, who have lost against NOTA should not get a chance to contest again. That is what the logic is all about. Since there is no such rule, many voters think what is the point of choosing NOTA," Gupta told PTI.

"In 2014, 1.08 pc voters chose NOTA, the percentage was 1.06 pc in 2019. It is a sizeable number but I believe it is more due to error and less due to intention," Gupta said. "But if a rule is brought in barring the rejected candidates from contesting again, I believe the number will go up like anything. The political parties understand the sensitivity of this and that is why I believe no one will favour such a law and hence NOTA is a toothless option," he added.


Calls have also been made for scrapping NOTA. Former Chhattisgarh chief minister Bhupesh Baghel had last year sought scrapping NOTA, stating that in certain cases it polled more votes than winning margin. In 2018, the Supreme Court had ruled that NOTA option should not be given in the Rajya Sabha elections.