NOTA a toothless tiger unless it can impact election results, say experts

Despite being introduced over a decade ago, the NOTA option on EVMs in India remains under utilised, with experts labelling it ineffective

The NOTA button was introduced through a Supreme Court judgement in September 2013 (photo: National Herald archives)
The NOTA button was introduced through a Supreme Court judgement in September 2013 (photo: National Herald archives)


More than 10 years after a Supreme Court judgement paved the way for the introduction of the NOTA button on EVMs (electronic voting machines), the number of voters choosing it still remains low, with several experts dubbing it a "toothless tiger" with no implications on election results.

NOTA (none of the above) was introduced in India through a Supreme Court judgement in September 2013, as a supposed way of discouraging political parties from fielding tainted candidates.

The Supreme Court directed the Election Commission (EC) to make necessary provisions in ballot papers/EVMs so that voters could decide not to vote for any of the candidates in the fray. On EVMs, the NOTA option has its own symbol — a ballot paper with a black cross across it.

Following the Supreme Court order, the EC added the NOTA button on 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 state assembly and Lok Sabha elections combined in the last five years, the number of candidates with criminal records has increased in both the general and assembly elections.

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

Of the 543 winners analysed by ADR in the 2009 Lok Sabha elections, 162 (30 per cent) had declared criminal cases against them, while 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 and 29 per cent respectively.

"NOTA has made no difference as far as criminality is concerned, in fact the number of candidates with criminal cases has increased," ADR chief major-general (retd) Anil Verma told PTI. "The concept of NOTA was that some pressure would be brought on parties not to field tainted candidates. It has not happened."

Overall in different state and general elections, votes for NOTA have hovered between 0.5 per cent to 1.5 per cent, according to data compiled by ADR. NOTA got around 1.06 per cent of the votes in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, and among states, the highest it got was 1.98 percent in the 2018 Chhattisgarh Assembly polls.

The lowest number of votes polled by NOTA in the Lok Sabha was 100 votes in Lakshadweep, and among state polls, it secured a mere 0.46 percent in both the Delhi Assembly elections 2020 and the Mizoram 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," Verma said.

He, however, pointed out that overall, the percentage of NOTA votes in seats reserved for Scheduled Castes and Tribes (SC and ST) has been slightly higher, which may indicate that there are more grievances among these groups. "In the reserved constituencies, we have seen that the percentage of NOTA votes are higher. Perhaps the tribals and SCs have more grievances so they go for NOTA in larger numbers," he said.

Constituency wise, NOTA secured as many 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', or seats featuring three or more candidates with criminal cases against them, NOTA has secured 26.77 lakh votes in state assembly elections since 2018, ranging from 1.63 per cent in 217 red alert constituencies in Bihar 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 with 5.03 per cent of the total votes.

Axis India chairman Pradeep Gupta said there is a need 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 per cent voters chose NOTA, the percentage was 1.06 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."

Calls have also been made to scrap NOTA. For instance, former Chhattisgarh chief minister Bhupesh Baghel called for scrapping NOTA last year, stating that in certain cases, it polled more votes than the winning margin.

In 2018, the Supreme Court had ruled that the NOTA option should not be provided for elections to the Rajya Sabha, where only members of state assemblies can vote.

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