Widespread use of NOTA in Bihar should compel EC to tweak rules, improve option's efficacy
Bihar's romance with NOTA in the Lok Sabha elections should persuade the Election Commission to alter the rules to turn it into a more lethal political weapon.
NOTA bagged between 30,000 and 40,000 votes in seven seats in Bihar, between 20,000 and 30,000 in 12 and 10,000 to 20,000 in six
The disruptive potential of NOTA can be gauged from the fact that some candidates won by a slim margin of votes
Bihar's romance with NOTA should persuade the Election Commission to alter the rules to turn it into a more lethal political weapon
When the Supreme Court ruled in favour of inserting the None of the Above, or NOTA, option in electronic voting machines, the judges had fervently hoped in their verdict of 27 September, 2013: "When political parties realise that a large number of people are (choosing NOTA and) expressing their disapproval… there will be systemic change, and political parties will be forced… to field candidates who are known for their integrity."
The Supreme Court's ruling had compelled the Election Commission of India to introduce the NOTA button on EVMs for the first time for the 2014 Lok Sabha elections.
Five years later, in the recent held parliamentary polls, voters in Bihar pressed the NOTA button on their voting machines like people possessed. They seemed oblivious to the so-called 'Modi wave' sweeping the country, including in Bihar where the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance won 39 of the state's 40 Lok Sabha seats, so steadfast were they in expressing their dissent against the candidates that mainstream political parties had fielded for the 2019 polls.
NOTA's performance in Bihar, so to speak, was incredible. Gopalganj, a reserved constituency, polled 51,660 NOTA votes and Paschim Champaran, 45,699 such votes. NOTA bagged between 30,000 and 40,000 votes in seven constituencies in Bihar, between 20,000 and 30,000 in 12 and between 10,000 and 20,000 in six. The remaining 13 seats registered less than 10,000 NOTA votes, which is considered par for the course. In as many as 13 constituencies, NOTA came third.
Its strong showing in Bihar can be gleaned from a comparison with the votes it polled in some of the larger states. Four constituencies in Tamil Nadu and Maharashtra each, three in West Bengal and just one in Uttar Pradesh polled between 20,000 and 30,000 NOTA votes — the highest range in these states.
To figure out the remarkable change in Bihar's political behaviour, this correspondent spoke to journalists, academicians and activists who were closely associated with the 2019 elections. The conversations with them showed that while the wish to have candidates with integrity did drive the Biharis to weaponise NOTA, so did the rivalries between traditional supporters of the parties locked in an electoral alliance, caste prejudices, competition and the tendency of political parties to ignore the wishes of their workers.
"Whenever a party gives a ticket without taking the wishes of its workers into consideration, their status is reduced to that of bonded labour," said Mahesh Agarwal, president of the Bihar unit of Seema Jagran Manch, an affiliate of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh.
Agarwal is a voter in Paschim Champaran, from where BJP candidate Dr Sanjay Jaiswal won for the third time. His father, Dr Madan Prasad Jaiswal, too, had been elected twice from here.
Paschim Champaran can be labelled as a Jaiswal family borough, where a segment of voters opposed to Dr Sanjay Jaiswal's candidature initiated a campaign to opt for NOTA.
"I told party workers that Narendra Modi will become prime minister again, so press NOTA to highlight the constituency's problems," said Agarwal.
Dr Jaiswal, however, won by nearly three lakh votes, suggesting that despite 45,699 votes cast for NOTA, Agarwal's effort turned out to be an exercise in futility.
"It wasn't futile," he responded, asking instead, "Why did you contact me? It is because Paschim Champaran polled 45,699 NOTA votes. Likewise, the party will wonder why so many votes were cast for NOTA."
His remark presumes that BJP workers had cast the bulk of NOTA votes. "Yes, it was mostly BJP workers who pressed NOTA, you know, the shirt-coat-tie type," Agarwal insisted. "Unlike the poor, the privileged do not take to the streets to fight for their rights. They, instead, press NOTA."
Another set of data upholds, ostensibly, Agarwal's sweeping observation. Of the top 10 NOTA constituencies, the BJP had won six in 2014. However, the party fought from only two of those in 2019 — Paschim Champaran and Saran. The other four — Gopalganj, Nawada, Valmiki Nagar and Gaya — were transferred to allies Janata Dal (United) or Lok Janshakti Party. In 2014, the BJP had lost Bhagalpur, which, too, was assigned to the JD(U) in 2019.
The switch of seats from the BJP to JD(U) upset upper-caste supporters of the former. They didn't want to vote for JD(U) candidates who did not belong to their social groups. Take, for instance, Valmiki Nagar, from where BJP's Satish Chandra Dubey, a Brahmin, had won in 2014. The Brahmins of Valmiki Nagar were enraged that the seat was allocated to the JD(U), which, to make matters worse, didn't field one from their community. Consequently, a segment of Brahmins opted to press NOTA, which polled 34,338 votes.
This trend was observed even in reserved constituencies, where all parties have to field Dalit candidates. Take the example of Gopalganj, where the BJP won in 2014 but vacated the seat for the JD(U) this time round. Such is the chasm between the upper-caste social base of the BJP and the OBC base of the JD(U) that the former, in larger numbers, voted for NOTA.
"The 'mahagathbandhan' candidate here belonged to the RJD (Rashtriya Janata Dal), which the upper castes are averse to voting for," explained journalist Sanjay Dubey.
However, it is wrong to view the NOTA phenomenon in Bihar only through the caste prism. In Bhagalpur, a general constituency from where BJP's Syed Shahnawaz Hussain lost by less than 10,000 votes in 2014, BJP supporters — particularly Marwaris, a community that is quite assertive here unlike elsewhere — wanted Hussain as their candidate largely because of the development work he had undertaken during his earlier stints as an MP.
Bhagalpur, however, was assigned to the JD(U), which fielded Ajay Mandal, whose rival was sitting RJD MP Shailesh Kumar Mandal.
"Ajay Mandal would say fate got him the ticket and fate would win him the seat. Nobody was impressed. But there was also anger against Shailesh Mandal as he had not worked for the constituency. So over 31,000 people voted for NOTA," said a Bhagalpur-based journalist, who did not want to be identified.
He, however, disagreed with those who think BJP voters have a greater propensity for NOTA, citing the example of the Jamui reserved constituency, where dissenters polled 39,496 NOTA votes. It was from here that Union minister Ram Vilas Paswan's son and heir apparent Chirag contested.
"There were people who did not want to vote for Modi at any cost. However, the 'mahagathbandhan's candidate, Bhudeo Choudhary (of the Rashtriya Lok Samta Party), was hardly sighted in the constituency after winning the seat in 2009. They took their revenge against Choudhary by voting for NOTA," the Bhagalpur journalist said.
People's reasons for choosing NOTA varied from constituency to constituency. If people didn't want to vote for Modi in Jamui, there were other dynamics in Kishanganj, where Muslims overwhelmingly dominate the electorate. Muslim candidates of the Congress and the JD(U) received well over three lakh votes here, and the Muslim candidate of the All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen bagged nearly three lakh votes. Yet, NOTA was chosen 19,722 times in Kishanganj.
"Who were they?" the Bhagalpur-based journalist asked. "They are the hardcore BJP-minded people who will never vote for a Muslim candidate."
In Jehanabad, NOTA was polled 27,683 times to express caste grievances. The Bhumihars, who dominate the constituency, were miffed that the JD(U) chose to field Chandeshwar Prasad, who is a Ravani, a backward caste. Jehanabad usually witnesses a fierce battle for electoral supremacy between the Bhumihars and Yadavs.
Journalist and writer Ashok Priyadarshi said: "We had political parties field candidates from other castes in constituencies that the Bhumihars regarded as traditionally theirs. Jehanabad was the last straw. They showed their anger through NOTA."
The disruptive potential of NOTA can be gauged from the fact that Prasad won by just 1,075 votes.
NOTA, however, is also used as a mode of expressing dissent against the criminalisation of politics. Priyadarshi cited the example of Nawada, where NOTA received 35,147 votes. This seat was assigned to the LJP, which fielded Chandan Singh, brother of Surajbhan Singh, a former MP who could not contest as he was convicted in a murder case.
"Chandan, too, has been booked for heinous crimes. The day his candidature was announced, the mood in Nalanda was mournful,” Priyadarshi said.
People were deprived of a credible alternative in Nawada because the mahagathbandhan fielded Vibha Devi, wife of Raj Ballabh Yadav, an RJD leader convicted for raping a minor.
"The BJP managed their voters, of whom around a thousand or so might have voted for NOTA. All other NOTA voters were the progressives, who were deeply disturbed by the battle between dons in the electoral arena," said Priyadarshi.
Journalist Sangram Singh went around Saran to find out why NOTA mopped up 28,267 votes in the constituency. What he found was telling — NOTA voters included the upper castes, Other Backwards Classes and Scheduled Castes. Most of them were second- or third-time voters and avid users of social media, which had underscored to them the importance of using NOTA to punish politicians who don't care for their constituencies.
"All of them were dismayed at their plight and that of their constituency. They coined the slogan 'NOTA ka sota' (wield the NOTA stick)," Singh said.
This correspondent bounced his findings with Rakesh Ranjan, who teaches political science at Patna University, and coordinated the poll survey of the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies in Bihar. Ranjan was not surprised by the passion of Biharis for NOTA.
"Bihar hasn't produced a fresh political face," Ranjan said. "All three big leaders — Lalu Prasad Yadav, Nitish Kumar and Sushil Kumar Modi — are products of the anti-Emergency movement and have been around for three decades."
Ranjan said Bihar, unlike Delhi, has not been presented with an alternative idea of politics, not even of the kind that Mayawati represents in Uttar Pradesh.
"NOTA has an appeal for those who are politically conscious, which Biharis are to a high degree," Ranjan said. "Pressing NOTA is their way of demanding alternative politics."
Bihar's romance with NOTA should persuade the Election Commission to alter the rules to turn it into a more lethal political weapon. Currently, in case NOTA polls the highest number of votes in a constituency, the runner-up is declared the winner. It limits NOTA's efficacy as people cannot band together to prevent an unsavoury politician from entering the Lok Sabha.
That is why Jagdeep S Chhokar, of the Association for Democratic Reforms, in his piece published in The Hindu, argued that NOTA's emergence as the winner in a constituency should automatically lead to the countermanding of its result. The constituency should have a fresh election, in which the earlier slate of candidates should be disallowed from contesting. This provision was introduced by a state election officer in Haryana.
No doubt, there are varied, often overlapping, factors behind voters exercising the NOTA option. Yet, raise a toast for Biharis, who are maligned for their insularity and provincialism but who have shown the possibility of harnessing NOTA to transform India's political culture.
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