Nothing doing

The NOTA option is an important innovation. It could spur political parties to step up their game.

The Supreme Court has ruled on the introduction of a "none of the above" (NOTA) option at the election booth, accepting the principle that withholding consent is also an active choice that must be registered. This has been a long-sought change, part of election reform recommendations since the 1970s, and India is now one of a handful of countries to offer it. While Rule 49-0 of the Conduct of Election Rules already allows voters to reject all the contenders, this decision had to be reported to the election officer, and was not part of the secret ballot.

This option will not have any destabilising effect on elections, since the petition did not challenge the rule that the highest polling candidate will be declared winner. And so, as in certain other contexts where this option operates, the presence of the "none of the above" button does not invalidate the election. While some worry that this option plays into a sapping anti-politics sentiment, Indian democracy can accommodate this dissent, and will in fact be enriched by it. The recording of it will have a cautionary effect on parties and their candidates, showing them a constituency of voters who care about politics, are invested in its outcomes and could have been mobilised, but remain unsatisfied with them and their rivals. It could be a spur and a goad for parties, a constant reminder of how they derive their legitimacy, and how many people they are leaving out of their pitch.

It will finally provide a relative measure of people not voting because they couldn't be bothered, and those who have a grievance against the political choices they have. While there is much talk of election-day slackers, or of citizens who feel alienated from the political system, India's voter turnout figures have held strong through the decades, unlike in other countries that have experienced a steady falling off. NOTA could also help in other ways in situations where a person is being intimidated into voting, this button could make sure there are no forced decisions. By encouraging people to show up at the booth even if they don't choose any candidate, it could prevent others casting votes in their name. "None of the above" places the voter at the centre, unlike much electoral reform that focuses on parties and their processes.

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