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Asia

'NOTA is not the same as right to reject'

The right to negative voting has been hailed as a landmark ruling with the potential to transform Indian elections. South Asia expert Milan Vaishnav examines the effectiveness and the impact of this provision.

India is currently holding key polls in five states - Chattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Delhi, Rajasthan, and Mizoram. For the first time, voters have the option of rejecting all the candidates standing in the elections by choosing the "none of the above" or NOTA option.

Many hoped the provision, which was introduced after Supreme Court ruling, would lead to the parties fielding to “better” candidates to the polls. However, political analyst Milan Vaishnav says in a DW interview that NOTA has had zero impact on the quality of politicians selected for the current state elections.

DW: What were the main reasons behind the introduction of NOTA to Indian elections?

Milan Vaishnav: One of the principal motives behind this provision was to allow voters to exercise the right to participate in the electoral process without feeling compelled to vote for a candidate or party they do not support, for lack of an alternative option. It affords each and every voter the right to register his or her "negative vote" against all candidates standing for election in a particular constituency.

What is this provision intended to achieve?

Milan Vaishnav, associate at the South Asia program of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Copyright: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Vaishnav says NOTA will not have a substantial impact on 'cleansing' political outcomes

NOTA is not the same as "right-to-reject" system, whereby, if the majority of voters opt for "none of the above" option, no candidate will be declared the winner and a fresh election will be called.

Under the system introduced in India, even if the NOTA wins more votes than the candidates running for office, the contestant with the greatest number of votes will still be counted as the victor. In this way, this provision is a disappointment to many good government campaigners as it will not have a substantial impact on "cleaning up" political outcomes.

Some activists say they hope the Supreme Court decision is a first step toward establishing a broader "right-to-reject." Do you believe this could lead to a new provision in India?

It is hard to predict whether there will be a "right-to-reject" in the future. However, the Supreme Court's recent ruling certainly increases the possibility this will happen. NOTA is only a half-step in that direction.

Given the way in which the Court has tried to fill a governance vacuum in India - one that was created by parliament and politicians - it seems likely that civil society will keep up the pressure. If India's politicians do not take electoral reforms seriously, the judges may be under some pressure to take matters into their own hands.

Has NOTA led to the political parties choosing candidates with a clean image in the ongoing state elections?

It has had zero impact on the quality of politicians selected by parties for these state elections. In fact, in several states we see that the number of candidates with criminal records is higher in 2013 than it was in the past election in 2008.

In the state of Rajasthan, an analysis by the Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR) has shown that 15 percent of major party candidates in 2008 faced criminal cases; in 2013, the number remains 15 percent. However, the number of candidates with "serious" cases has gone up in 2013. The trend is similar in other states such as Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh.

How important are these state elections and why?

They are important for two main reasons. First, when state elections occur less than two years before national elections, the verdicts are typically the same. That is, the parties winning the majority of seats at the state level usually end up repeating the feat at the national level.

Second, although the contest will be determined largely by local factors, there is no doubt that the election outcomes will be interpreted as referenda on the two leading prime ministerial candidates, Rahul Gandhi of the ruling Congress Party and Narendra Modi of the opposition BJP.

What impact will NOTA have on the voter turnout in the elections?

It might only have a small impact. For starters, many voters are not aware of the option. There hasn't been much time for authorities and civic activists to inform nearly 800 million Indian voters. However, to the extent voters do become informed, it might help increase the turnout in the upcoming national elections. Now there is a mechanism for conscientious voters to participate even if they are turned off by the individual candidates standing for election. NOTA is their own personal form of protest.

Milan Vaishnav is an associate in the South Asia Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

The interview was conducted by Srinivas Mazumdaru.