NOTA Vote by Tara Kaushal

October 2013: The Supreme Court has recently introduced ‘None of the Above’ as an option on electronic voting machines. How and why this will encourage people like me, a person who hasn’t ever voted, to participate in the next elections.

Growing up, politics didn't interest me at all, but I’ve made a considerable effort to get up to speed over the past few years—I’m 30 now, and it seems like the responsible thing to do.

Though I’ve swallowed my distaste, participate in the intensity of the political discussion in the lead up to the 2014 elections and nurture a strong desire to vote (getting a voter’s ID card is a start), I feel no closer to finding someone to vote for. And I’m not alone. Friends—ranging from an investment banker in Dubai to an editor of a weekly, the former editor of India’s largest news portal to a swadeshi foreigner, actors, designers, lawyers, writers—express the same feeling, of being in limbo. A news magazine’s cover aptly summed up what my little sample group of us young, urban, liberal educateds feel about the choices we face—the UPA/ Congress vs the BJP under Narendra Modi—between the devil and the deep blue sea.

We are always blamed and shamed as a demographic and generation that doesn’t vote. Party to intense political discussions these past few months, I realise it is a studied disillusionment with politics in general that is the reason, and not a lazy disinterest, as is often suggested. Politics and politicians are alienating and cater to a vote bank whose concerns we don't understand, and overall, don't have our vote of confidence. Gleaned from these drawing room discussions are reasons for the current catch-22.

Fledgling Ideas

In my simplistic worldview predating my political interest, I was a latent Congress supporter. For one, my mother was a huge fan of the Congress’s Manmohan Singh as the reform-minded Finance Minister who liberalised the country’s economy. My primary grouse against the BJP was its Hindutva agenda and links to the RSS, etc, and for a secular atheist/agnostic, religion sh/could not form the foundations of a democracy’s governance. As a nine-year-old in ’92, the demolition of the Babri Masjid—that prioritised history over the present, religion over reason—caused the first spate of communal violence that I had ever witnessed.

[Now, we know it’s not like the Congress doesn’t have blood on its hands, and just because most of us youngsters were not around to see the Anti-Sikh movement and riots of the ’70s and ’80s, doesn’t mean they didn’t happen. A friend, Dimple Kaur has never seen her father, tied to a pole and burnt as he was in the riots while her mother was pregnant with her.] Nonetheless, the Congress seemed more liberal, more progressive than the religious-minded BJP, and this was the first one to crystallise of my unevolved and underinformed ideas of what I’d want in a government.

And Now

The nation’s youth has watched horror-stuck as scams after scam, failures after failure have plagued the UPA. The PM’s impassive face, subject to nation-wide ridicule, has watched as the economy nose-dives, the judiciary fails, the rich get richer, the poor get poorer, Vadras prosper, nothing gets done, women get raped (and criticised for the role they played in it) and fires burn. There’s also a belief that we can no longer be an ‘elected monarchy’, supporting the murky legacy of the tainted Nehru-Gandhi dynasty, that has long since put self over service. And then, to add the insult of stupidity to the injury of a dovetailing economy is the unsustainable, ill-thought-out Food Security Bill, a mere vote-garnering tool as the elections near.

So no, not the Congress, not again.

As much as the BJP is being seen as the saviour in this unholy mess, it’s hard to buy ‘Gujarat Shining Under Modi’ as the Holy Grail of what India can or should be. Advertising for Gujarat Tourism, with a gently appealing Amitabh Bachchan, has been in full-throttle for a while now, subtly ensuring that Gujarat-the-Great is on everyone’s lips.

For starters, it is hard to forgive Modi for the role he played in the aftermath of the Godhra massacre in 2002. A Modi-supporter once told me that we attribute more control to him than he had at that stage in his political career, that the riots were spontaneous. Not true—by all counts, the systematic massacre of Muslims was definitely State-led. And even if it wasn’t, a basic rule of management states that authority can be delegated, responsibility cannot—and, as the Chief Minister, Modi bears moral and, indeed, administrative responsibility for what happened in the state under his governance. Plus, in a country that needs law and order to provide stability in an unstable political climate, Modi’s extra-judicial methods in dealing with terrorists should also raise some red flags.

Sure, when you drive in to Gujarat from Maharashtra, you notice the difference in the roads. The cleanliness. The shiny, glossy things that attract the magpies. But all that glitters is not gold, and one must be wary of the supply-side economics that favour the rich that Modi propounds. One needs only to look towards Bush’s administration to see its pitfalls.

So yeah, no BJP either. And the Third Front isn’t really a viable third option, is it?

None of the Above

So when the Supreme Court introduced the electoral reform, upholding the right of voters to reject all candidates contesting the elections, I wasn’t surprised to see Facebook updates like “Now I can vote!” Because, god knows, we want to!

That young, urban, educated people don’t vote is, in itself, a huge governance issue, because—at the risk of blowing our collective horn—we are this country’s only hope. It’s up to us to demand the basics—an uncorrupt, efficient government that has its priorities straight and keeps its promises; that teaches the poor to fish (and not simply wait for handouts at election-time); that looks at people beyond cultural and religious prisms; that respects the judiciary and upholds the law, and amends it in a relevant and timely manner beyond vote-seeking self-serving; etc.

At the base of it, negative voting may seem futile—even if the maximum number of votes cast is for NOTA, the candidate getting the most of the remaining votes will be declared winner. But, “Negative voting will lead to a systemic change in polls and political parties will be forced to project clean candidates,” said a bench headed by the Chief Justice of India, P Sathasivam. Instead of election ink evading our fingers for another half-decade, we must turn out in great numbers to express our dissatisfaction with ‘the Above’ choices presented to us, to prove that we do, indeed, care, and for political parties to acknowledge us as a dissatisfied, formidable vote bank.

So far, people casting negative votes were required to enter their names in a register and cast their vote on a separate paper ballot. Apart from encouraging people like us to have a voice, the move also allows for something else—it allows those who feel pressurised into voting (for reasons of economy or fear) to, instead, go in and come out pretending to have done their pressurisers’ bidding. This is perhaps why the SC has laid emphasis on maintaining the secrecy of votes cast under the NOTA category.

“If the right to vote is a statutory right, then the right to reject candidate is a fundamental right of speech and expression under the Constitution,” said the bench. And I'm sure this demographic, accustomed to being heard, will welcome the opportunity to have a say in the workings of the country.  

An edited version of this column appeared in Governance Now in October 2013.

I have since become much more political and politically aware. Modi's politics have pushed me firmly into the 'Not in my name' category, helping me decide what I want by knowing what I don't want.