Saturday, 29 January 2005

Is negative voting a negative idea?

The Indian Express, in the lead editorial on January 26, has criticised the concept of negative voting and says it smacks of a negative attitude to politics rather than a constructive attitude to reform.

Well, perhaps it is. Or is it?

The issue of negative voting has been in the public domain for long. But what many people did not know was that it is possible. Just before the 2004 elections, the Indian Liberal Group, of which I am a member, put out a note telling people exactly how to go and register a negative vote. Several ILG members in Mumbai exercised it.

I am completely taken up by the idea of negative voting. For several elections now, I have stopped voting according to parties, because I feel there is absolutely no difference between the Congress and the BJP (those are the only two choices for me). Therefore, I have gone entirely by the candidates they have put up. I believe it is important to get people with integrity and people who will perform into the various levels of elected bodies. (Voting for the sundry other candidates has never been an option for me because I don’t know them or what they represent; also quite a few are absolutely shady or frivolous characters.) Sometimes the choices have been very clear because of the outstanding nature of the candidates concerned. But sometimes I have been hard put to choose between the two parties because the candidates have been equally lacklustre but also have not evoked extreme negative reactions and thus warranted a negative vote. In such cases I have voted for one or the other out of instinct, which has not been proved wrong.

But what would I do if I had to choose between a Sajjan Kumar of the Congress (a key accused in the 1984 riots and who had been seen leading the rioters and who arranged for a huge crowd to come and protect him when the police came for him sometimes in the 1990s) and Narendra Modi (ok, he’s not from Delhi, but you get the point)? What do I do if my choice is between D P Yadav, Pappu Yadav, Taslimuddin and Mohd. Shahbuddin or sundry other criminals wanted for rape, murder, extortion, kidnapping etc.? Between Ram Vilas Paswan and Laloo Yadav, who have no compunction about fanning casteist and communal sentiments (if you’re wondering how I can call these two communal – a term we have all reserved for the BJP – that will be a subject of a subsequent piece)? Between Jayalalitha and Karunanidhi (both condoning corruption and indulging in casteist politics)? Or, assuming that I vote on the basis of ideology and not individuals, what if there is no party that represents my ideology of a free and open society?

I could stay away from voting. But I am told it is my duty to vote. But it is also my duty to vote responsibly. So my conscience is torn between two conflicting duties. The only way I can fulfil both duties is a negative vote.

Now the Indian Express argues that this is `middle class dissatisfaction with politics’ that `should not be confused with dissatisfaction in general.’ It also says the purpose of elections is `to elect a government, not simply express vague dissatisfaction.’

Vague dissatisfaction? The Indian Express grossly underestimates the extent of discontent that is seething under the calm middle class exterior. Someone (either Surjit Bhalla or TCA Srinivasa-Raghavan) had written about the middle class seceding from India (I will be writing on that too at some stage) and I think this is an extremely serious problem which papers like the Indian Express are glossing over.

In any case, how are ordinary people to express dissatisfaction? They can write letters to the editor, but how many can be published? Taking to the streets is an option, but is that a desirable one? The vote is the only weapon people have.

The editorial says `negative dissatisfaction is not an answer to the question of who should rule’. But who rules you (specifically, the quality of who rules you) determines how you are ruled. And voting is the only way for you to decide the quality of your elected representatives. If you elect good men and women to your local body/state assembly/parliament, your level of dissatisfaction will also go down.

There are, we are told, several other ways to express dissatisfaction. One of them is not turning up for election. But going to the polling booth and registering a protest vote also ensures that someone else doesn’t go and vote in your name, something that happens all the time.

A negative vote is one way for people to show that, yes, they have a stake in and believe in the system but want a change in the way it operates. I don’t think there’s anything negative about that. It’s far more positive and constructive than merely going and voting without applying one’s mind. It signals a desire for reform. When I say, through my vote, that I will not vote for X,Y,Z or A,B,C, I am saying we need better people in politics.

The editorial does not suggest what should be a positive or constructive attitude to political reform. (Well, it does talk about enabling more people to run for public office, but I don’t think there is anything barring you and me from standing for elections.) One way would be for people who are dissatisfied to get into politics. But not everyone (and this cuts across social and income groups) has the time/money/stamina or inclination for politics to do this. Does that mean that they should reconcile themselves to being ruled by thugs, fanatics or simply incompetent and corrupt people?

A negative vote is a compromise path between armchair fulminations and time-consuming activism. It may not be the best option but is the only one available now.


Anonymous said...

it was nice to read when i found ur blog in search of negative vote:)
will u tell me hat is procedure and how i can vote in such manner when its electronic voting


Ganesh Kumar said...

While its a good starting point, to convey whats available to voters today, what is needed now is a more cohesive action format to get the proposed electoral reforms on this issue of Negative/Neutral voting legislated by the government and its a tall order.

Also, I wish to summarize this Rule and what amendments are really required....
The current Rule 49-O of the Conduct of Elections (as correctly indicated in the above article) …is flawed and powerless as well as it exposes the voter! It needs to be modified to allow for a column in the ballot paper “None of the Above Candidates” so a voter can tick that if he does not wish to vote anyone.

See Proposed Electoral Reforms … Recommendations since 2001 and resubmitted in 2004. Part I, Chapter 7 reproduced here..
The Commission has received proposals from a very large number of individuals and organizations that there should be a provision enabling a voter to reject all the candidates in the constituency if he does not find them suitable. In the voting using the conventional ballot paper and ballot boxes, an elector can drop the ballot paper without marking his vote against any of the candidates, if he chooses so. However, in the voting using the Electronic Voting Machines, such a facility is not available to the voter. Although, Rule 49 O of the Conduct of Election Rules, 1961 provides that an elector may refuse to vote after he has been identified and necessary entries made in the Register of Electors and the marked copy of the electoral roll, the secrecy of voting is not protected here inasmuch as the polling officials and the polling agents in the polling station get to know about the decision of such a voter.

The Commission recommends that the law should be amended to specifically provide for negative / neutral voting. For this purpose, Rules 22 and 49B of the Conduct of Election Rules, 1961 may be suitably amended adding a proviso that in the ballot paper and the particulars on the ballot unit, in the column relating to names of candidates, after the entry relating to the last candidate, there shall be a column “None of the above”, to enable a voter to reject all the candidates, if he chooses so. Such a proposal was earlier made by the Commission in 2001 (vide letter dated 10.12.2001).
(A petition by the People’s Union for Civil Liberties seeking such a provision filed at the time of the recent general elections is pending before the Hon’ble Supreme Court)

Do you believe the current breed of political parties in the government will APPROVE the inclusion of these clauses? They will forever be ‘pending’, least of get 'legislated'.

Therefore, an alternative forceful method has to be devised to get the government ‘to listen and adhere to the voice of the people!’

Draft of PROPOSED Amendment should be:

“1. If the voter does not wish to vote any of the contesting candidates, he shall put the prescribed mark on the ballot paper at the place within the space containing the symbol of “none of the above candidates”;

And, To give more force to the rule, additional clause(s) should be added … for eg.

2. (i) Notwithstanding anything contained in any Article of this Order, if the number of “none of the above candidates” votes exceeds 50% (fifty percent) of the total votes cast in any constituency, the Returning Officer shall cancel the election proceedings after giving an immediate notice and inform the Commission accordingly.

(ii) Where election proceedings are canceled under clause (2i), fresh proceedings shall be commenced in accordance with the provisions of this Order as if for a new election and the Candidates who contested will not be eligible for contesting again.”

A cohesive online and offline Campaign to get these clauses included in the Conduct of Elections Rules will be a huge ‘first’ victory to the People’s Power.

And this should happen IMMEDIATELY at least PRIOR to the Upcoming Parliamentary elections on April 2009. Any takers?

Iyen said...

Hi, the blog is good and informative. Now a PIL is filed in Supreme court and all looks good to see NOFA(None of the Above) Button in Electroninc Polling machine.

shruti shah said...

we have formed an NGO in the name of liberate india under the inspiration of Dr. Aniruddha Joshi. working for mainly creating awareness of voting and introduction of negative voting. Visit our website and register youself.

Nagaraj said...

No , it is a must in all voting system, our system is to improvise every thing and not adjust with bad politicians so we need negative vote surely.
for example if there is four candidate who murders and rape all our family members and stands for election can you vote for him or can you leave your vote ideal for any other politician to falsely vote in behalf of you..