The power of NOTA and the Indian voter

Electoral outcomes in Gujarat followed a different trajectory. Despite popular vote, the NOTA option made the contest difficult for the BJP. This is something all political parties must take note of The outcome of the recently held Gujarat Assembly election results has for the first time clearly established the power of the None of the Above (NOTA) option and provided evidence that it can play a significant role in a major election in the country. India entered the ‘NOTA age’ as it were in 2013, after the Supreme Court’s judgement in People’s Union for Civil liberties (PUCl) & Anr vs Union of India & Anr, in which it directed the Election Commission of India to add the NOTA button to electronic voting machines. The court held that giving the voter the right not to vote for any candidate was extremely important in a democracy. The law Commission of India and the Election Commission were also in favour of giving the voter the right to reject all candidates. The court cited the example of 13 nations where NOTA is in vogue and said, “Such an option gives the voter the right to express his disapproval with the kind of candidates that are being put up by the political parties”. “When political parties will realise 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”. Since then, NOTA has come into vogue in elections in the country, but its impact was significant in Gujarat 2017. In the recent Assembly election in Gujarat, there were 21 seats in which the votes polled by NOTA were more than the margin between the first two candidates. Of these, there were 12 seats where the BJP’s margin of defeat was less than NOTA. There is a view that most of those who voted NOTA were those who were registering their protest with the BJP without wanting to translate their cynicism into a positive vote for the Congress. They wanted to inflict a kind of mild punishment on the party which has been in power for 22 years, without ever wanting to provide an advantage to the Congress. Which means that in the absence of such discontentment, the BJP would have bagged all or most of these seats. This is the most credible hypothesis because the Congress has been out of power for over two decades in the State and has also been dislodged from power at the federal level. Second, throughout the Gujarat campaign, it imagined the electorate’s hostility towards the BJP and tried to whip up a frenzy against demonetisation and the Goods and Services Tax. It can, therefore, take credit for the swelling of NOTA votes, but nothing more. In this election, at least the Congress lacks the qualification to be worthy of the votes that went into NOTA! A look at the outcomes in the 12 seats where NOTA damaged the BJP is revealing. In Chhota Udaipur, the Congress won by less than 1,000 votes and there were 5,870 NOTA votes. In Dang, the Congress’ margin was just 800, but 2,184 votes pressed the NOTA button. In Deodhar, the Congress’ margin of victory was less than 1,000 but the number of NOTA votes was 2,988. However, Kaparada would be the most obvious as also Mansa, Chhota Udaipur and Jetpur. In Kaparada, the Congress defeated the BJP by a mere 170 votes but the number of NOTA votes in the box was 3,868. The BJP lost the Mansa seat by just 524 votes when as many as 3,000 voters made NOTA their choice. In Jetpur, the BJP’s margin of defeat was 3,052 votes but NOTA had more than double of it — 6,155. Morva Hadaf, Sojitra, Wankaner, Jam Jodhpur, Dhanera and Talaja were some other seats which slipped out of the BJP’s hands. In Talaja, the Congress won the seat by 1,779 votes but NOTA notched up 2,918. In Wankaner, the BJP lost the seat by 1,361 votes when 3,170 voters opted for NOTA. As stated earlier, there were some seats where the Congress’ margin of defeat was less than NOTA. Among them were Vagra, Vijaipur, Prantij and Porbandar. But as the party was not suffering from anti-incumbency, it may not be correct to put these votes in the party’s kitty. At best, it can be argued that but for NOTA, the BJP’s margin of victory would have been better. Apart from NOTA, it can be seen that electoral outcomes in Gujarat are different from other States. Usually, when the difference in vote share between the first two parties is 10 per cent or thereabouts, the winning party inflicts a crushing defeat on the second party and takes away 75 to 80 per cent of the seats in an Assembly. But this has never happened in Gujarat in the Assembly elections, although the BJP has maintained a lead of close to 10 per cent in several State Assembly elections. For example, in the last Assembly election in Rajasthan, held in 2013, the BJP secured 45 per cent vote against the Congress’s 33 per cent and won 163 of the 200 seats (80 per cent) in the Assembly. The Congress ended up with just 21 seats. Again in Madhya Pradesh in 2013, the BJP secured 45 per cent of the vote and a 8.5 per cent advantage over the Congress. This translated to 165 of the 230 seats for the BJP (70 per cent) and 58 seats for the Congress. More recently, in Himachal Pradesh, which went to polls along with Gujarat, the BJP with around 49 per cent of the vote was ahead of the Congress by seven percentage points, as in Gujarat, but it secured almost a two-thirds majority in the House winning 44 of the 68 seats. Therefore, it can be said that among the States, electoral outcomes in Gujarat follow a different trajectory. This time, despite a seven per cent advantage in terms of popular vote, the NOTA option made the contest even tighter and difficult for the BJP. This is something which all political parties will now have to take note of. It could well add a new dimension to our electoral politics.

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