State Governments are now stooping to snatch away the Right to Reject, that is, the right the country’s voters have got during elections – through a recent Supreme Court order to reject candidates they consider undesirable. This has already begun in Madhya Pradesh. The Election Commission there is trying to rein in efforts to make people aware and sensitise them about the new None of the Above (NOTA) option on the electronic voting machines (EVMs). When Dr. Sunilam, the Coordinator of the Jan Sansad Abhiyan Samiti of the Multai Vidhan Sabha constituency submitted an application to the Returning Officer for permission to carry out a public dissemination campaign for NOTA, the Returning Officer refused to give permission. From a normal viewpoint, it is the responsibility of the Election Commission itself to make voters aware and sensitise them to any changes in the voting process. But the Election Commission is not taking that initiative and those people who are trying to sensitise voters, the Commission is tightening the reins on them. It is a breach, a killing of the democratic rights of the people.
When, on the orders of the Supreme Court, voters in the country got the Right to Reject candidates, then for once it seemed that this order of the Supreme Court will show political parties the path to Constitutional and Parliamentary ideals. Alongside, the people of the country also go the right that under a democratic process they could not only choose a candidate they preferred, but also reveal or make it known that they did not want any of the candidates in the fray. This matter had been stuck with the Law Ministry from 2001. When social worker Anna Hazare included the Right to Reject and the Right to Recall in his 25 point programme, an environment for their implementation began to be created in the country. When the Supreme Court gave orders on this, the apprehension was expressed there and then that since the Supreme Court was doing what the Government and the Election Commission should have done, the Government would adopt a repressive attitude — this was certain. And this apprehension in the country was proved correct first by the Election Commission and the Government of Madhya Pradesh.
In Madhya Pradesh the Election Commission disallowed people to be made aware of and sensitised about the None of the Above (NOTA) option and a start on this was made in the Multai Vidhan Sabha constituency. There, Dr. Sunilam, the Coordinator of the Jan Sansad Abhiyan Samiti had submitted an application to the Returning Officer for permission for vehicles and meetings to carry out a public dissemination campaign for NOTA, but the Returning Officer refused to give permission. The Returning Officer gave the argument that Dr. Sunilam wan not a candidate from the assembly constituency and nor was he a member of any party, therefore, under the 2013 assembly elections Model Code of Conduct, he could not be give permission to publicise NOTA in this way. In fact, this step by the Returning Officer is not only a breach of the right of every citizen in the country to freedom of expression, but is also a grave blow to the democratic system of the country. At the same time, this refusal of permission also raises a question whether the responsibility of making people in the country aware and conscious of their rights is only that of members of parties and candidates who are fighting elections?
Over the years, social worker Anna Hazare, while leading people towards the path of change, has also talked of electoral reforms. Anna Hazare believes that in politics there is now the supremacy of money power and muscle power. According to him, elections now are no longer general elections, because candidates belong to ‘sides’ and parties. There are no candidates of the common people. Therefore, an option should be kept before the people that if they do desire any particular candidate, they can make it known. This effort of Anna Hazare got support in the entire country. So when the people got the Right to Reject, the Jan Sansad Abhiyan Committee, formed under Anna Hazare’s leadership, began to make people all over the country aware of this right. However, this should have been done by the Election Commission, because the Election Commission keeps boasting that through the Voters Awareness Campaign they make voters throughout the country aware of voting. But why has the Election Commission not yet launched in any part of the country an awareness campaign about the option of the new Right to Reject and the NOTA button on electronic voting machines, even though Lok Sabha elections are due shortly and the assembly elections in five States will be over soon ?
During his country wide Jantantra Yatra, Anna Hazare has felt that people still lack awareness about elections and the selection of candidates. To meet this gap, the Jan Sansad Abhiyan Committee, formed under his leadership, held public meetings during the run up to the ongoing assembly elections in five States. Through these meetings, people were made aware of the value of their votes and the meaning of the option of NOTA.
Building this awareness was necessary also because in this regard the Government and the Election Commission are merely doing the paperwork. The Central Government, in its own electoral interests, prepared an election publicity and campaign budget of Rs. 180 crores. The advertisements prepared and released from this budget for TV-print, radio and the Internet mention which schemes were started in the public interest by the Government, but there is not even a one line mention that voters have now got the Right to Reject, use it to free the politics of the country from undesirable elements. The Government of Madhya Pradesh was the first in the country to refuse permission to carry out a Right to
Reject option awareness campaign. But now, opposition leader Ajay Singh has alleged that in the last three months Shivraj Singh Chauhan, the Chief Minister of Madhya Pradesh, has incurred expenses of Rs. three hundred crores on his branding.
Anna Hazare and his associates are playing an important role in every part of the country to sensitise and make voters aware of their rights, especially the Right to Reject. Anna Hazare had also suggested to the Election Commission that since it would be the first time that voters would be using this Right to Reject option, the Election Commission should tell voters what symbol they were going to give this new button on the EVMs. In this context a logo on behalf of Anna Hazare was also suggested. But neither has the Election Commission yet launched any awareness campaign about this Right to Reject, nor have they given any information to voters that in the country’s electoral system, a provision of this kind has been made for the first time.
Dr. Sunilam, the Coordinator of the Jan Sansad Campaign Samiti, even wrote a letter in this context to the Madhya Pradesh State Chief Election Commissioner Jaideep Govind. In the letter, Dr. Sunilam requested the State Election Commission that at every polling booth, on the flex boards that have been put up under the Voters Awareness Campaign, the NOTA option should also be mentioned because the reality was that most voters did not even know about this Right to Reject. According to an estimate, in the Madhya Pradesh elections, the total expenses will be approximately Rs. 2000 crore, but out of this entire amount not even one rupee has been spent so far on NOTA.
Recently, the Election Commission, patting itself on its back, shared some data with the media, in which it was stated that 64 per cent voters select candidates at their own discretion. Religious, racial and family pressures are just 25 per cent. And approximately half the voters go to the voting centres, because they get an opportunity to exercise their right.
According to the Commission, in the voters awareness programme being carried out so far, the Commission has found that 10.5 per cent people cast their vote based on caste, and 7.6 per cent voters were influenced by the religion of candidates. If the Election Commission figures are correct, during this survey of theirs why do they also not reveal that such and such per cent of voters in the country do not prefer any of the candidates at all and welcome the Right to Reject?
If we take the Commission’s data itself, nearly half the voters go to vote because they get an opportunity to exercise their right, then in fact these are those voters who are angry or unhappy or dissatisfied with the existing candidates and want the NOTA option. If the remaining 64 per cent voters who select candidates at their own discretion are given the information that in the elections this time they also have an option to press the NOTA button, then undoubtedly they will be able to use their discretion in a much better manner. But the biggest question is that when the Election Commission is accepting that it is running a Voters Awareness Campaign, then how can a Returning Officer representing the Election Commission itself refuse to give permission for a Voters Awareness Campaign on NOTA?
Another big question is that why is there so much fear about NOTA within political parties in Madhya Pradesh alone? In fact, the Madhya Pradesh unit of the Jan Sansad Abhiyan Samiti and the Coordinator Dr. Sunilam have been making the people of this State aware about the Right to Reject for a long time. During the campaign of this committee, voices began rising from amongst the people that they are going to reject these candidates because they are worthless and inefficient and have been imposed on them. Seeing this response from the people, political party are becoming nervous and are putting many restraints in those who are in favour of NOTA or have been publicising it. There was also an attack in Chhindwara on Dr. Sunilam by criminal elements some time ago.
In Bhopal, on 17 October this year a clerk, Uma Shankar Tiwari, employed in the Weights and Measurement Department was suspended by the District Magistrate only because he was making people aware about the Right to Reject and NOTA. In fact, this repressive attitude of the Shivraj Government is going to create trouble for its own self and a glimpse of this can already be seen. The victims of the Bhopal Gas Tragedy have got together and decided that in the assembly elections they will give their reply to the political parties who have gone back on their promises by pressing the NOTA button to reject their candidates.
There is another reason too for raising questions about the Election Commission’s steps. The provision of NOTA is already there in the Indian Constitution or Election Rules already. Now it has been included in the EVMs. Since this provision already exists in the system yet people are not aware of the fact, makes it clear that the fault is not at the level of the Constitution, or in the rules connected with elections. The fault lies with the Election Commission because it is not making voters aware and conscious of it.
In the system so far voters went to the polling booths, and if a voter did not want to vote, the Returning Officer present at the booth gave the voter form 17 (A), on which the voter recorded his or her reservations. This system has existed for a long time. But in this arrangement there is no secrecy and it is written that the way every citizen of the country has a right to vote, so is every citizen entitled to keep it secret. It is to uphold this right that the Supreme Court has ordered that the NOTA option should be kept as the final or last option on the EVMs. If this is a digital reform and improvement on a paperwork system which has been practised so far, what is the offense in telling the people about it?
When, on the orders of the Supreme Court, a system was made for NOTA, political parties saw a danger hovering above them and from that time itself they began presenting the NOTA arrangement in a negative manner. The argument of those who opposed it was that the NOTA system may have been implemented, but the person who will get the largest number of votes will be victorious regardless of NOTA, then what is the meaning of this system? In fact, that any new system of electoral reforms has had an immediate effect has never been seen so far. The NOTA system needs to be understood on the concept of the science of medicines. The result of this will be seen like homeopathic medicines which go for complete diagnosis and cure of the disease rather than the immediate but temporary benefits of allopathic medicines. This is the reason why Governments may be talking of NOTA having no effect, but there is a fear in their minds.
If we see the incidents of history as a scale, the Mutiny of 1857 may have been unsuccessful, but it certainly filled the people of the country with a hope that if we fight unitedly and after proper preparation, we can be successful in our purpose. In fact, the Right to Reject option also takes us towards the same thinking. Therefore, even though in the next few elections effective results may not be seen, but in this sequence of change, after the Right to Reject, the real weapon that is being talked about – the Right to Recall — will also be obtained based on this hope and new confidence.
If one pays attention to the existing electoral system, many times such instances come forward from which it is evident that there is resentment against candidates amongst the voters. When ballot papers were used during elections, Election Officers counting the ballots would find many such ballot papers on which would be written ‘they are all thieves’. Such ballot papers would also be found where all the candidates had been stamped. It isn’t as if the voters did this unknowingly. In fact, it was the resentment within them which they wanted to show by coming to the voting centre. Now they have got a legal medium for showing their indignation. Also, when they will get an opportunity to show their resentment, they will come out to give expression to their resentment in larger numbers, and this will increase the percentage of voting.
Another big effect which that have a most effective influence will be that if there is a decline in the vote percentage of candidates, then it will be clearly evident that people do not really want them. Therefore, political parties will be compelled to field candidates with a clean image in the next elections so that they can get the support of a larger number of voters. It is here that NOTA is creating a fear in political parties. Voters too understand that NOTA is not a mundane weapon, it is a moral weapon which will compel political parties to be in sync with the changing times and move forward with candidates who have a clean image.
Political scientist Robert Dahl had once said that in India there is not a single sign that democracy will blossom and thrive. Sixty six years have elapsed since Independence and Indian democracy has not only blossomed and thrived, but has also become stronger. This concept of Robert Dahl was not allowed to blossom and thrive because of the reverence for democratic values held by the people of the country. But if the sixty six year old history of democracy in India is looked at attentively, the people of the country have never been able to emerge as a pressure group within that democracy. Leave aside a few contexts like the Right to Information and the Jan Lokpal issues, the people have never been included in political decisions. Now a moral weapon has been given in the form of the Right to Reject, with which the people will be moving forward as a pressure group in the direction of electoral reforms. The people of the country will once again prove wrong the thinking of Robert Dahl as well as the undemocratic attempt of the Returning Officer in Madhya Pradesh’s Multai assembly constituency.