The None of the Above option in India has played a decisive role in swinging results of elections in several state assembly and parliamentary constituencies, election data reveal.

In 2013, the Supreme Court ruled that a NOTA option must be provided in electronic voting machines so that voters are able to exercise their voting right if they do not opt to vote for a party’s candidate.

Due to rising voter discontent with political parties across India in recent years, None of the Above is expected to get significant traction in the seven-phased general elections that started on April 11. The trend is apparent from the Association for Democratic Reforms’ recent survey of voters, which shows that people have rated the federal and state governments’ performance as “below average” in all 31 listed governance markers, with the lowest scores for employment and agricultural issues.

Anil Verma, a retired major general and the head of ADR, said: “Over the last few years, the use of NOTA is slowly increasing because people are becoming disillusioned with the central and state governments. In some places, NOTA has scored more than the winning margins of candidates.”

Even if None of the Above cannot compete with major political parties, it can still influence an election outcome indirectly, political experts told Asia Times.

Power of NOTA

The NOTA option has had a critical impact on the electoral outcome because of the way it cut away votes from political parties. In several constituencies, NOTA has received more votes than the margin between the winner and the second runner-up. In the absence of the option, voters would have had to opt for one of the candidates and hypothetically, some of these votes could have gone to the second runner-up and changed the result.

Notably, in the Madhya Pradesh assembly election last year, the Indian National Congress wrested power from the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which had ruled the state for 15 years. The difference between Congress and BJP was five seats.

But in seven constituencies, BJP lost to Congress by margins of fewer than 1,000 votes, while NOTA recorded more than 1,000 votes in each of these seats, according to election data analyzed by Asia Times.

In Gwalior South constituency of Madhya Pradesh, Congress won by 121 votes and dethroned BJP. NOTA received 1,550 votes there. In the absence of NOTA, some of these votes could have gone to either BJP or Congress and changed the results.

In at least 16 seats in the Rajasthan assembly election, NOTA vote counts were higher than the victory margins.

In state assembly elections since 2014, NOTA has secured more than seven million votes. It had the lowest vote share (0.91%) in 2014 assembly elections held in eight states. Since then, NOTA has seen ups and downs but has never dropped below 1%.

Data source: Election Commission of India

In 2014 general elections, when NOTA was first used in a parliamentary poll, it received 1.08% of vote share across India and outperformed 21 parties. It has played a key role in certain closely-contested constituencies. For instance, in Sambhal Lok Sabha constituency in Uttar Pradesh, BJP defeated the Samajwadi Party by 5,174 votes, whereas NOTA had 7,658 votes.

Milan Vaishnav, director and a senior fellow at Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told Asia Times in an email: “In 2014, research has shown that NOTA was greater than the margin of victory in 24 parliamentary constituencies. So, in these limited instances, one can say NOTA could have affected the identity of the winner.”

Ongoing tussle

NOTA getting more votes than victory margins has made the ruling BJP concerned. Soon after the Madhya Pradesh poll results came out in December last year, the Rashtriya Matdata Manch (National Voters’ Forum) – an affiliate body of BJP’s parent organization Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) – started campaigning against NOTA. BJP’s student wing Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad launched a similar initiative.

BJP spokesperson Ram Kadam told Asia Times: “When somebody is voting for NOTA, they are wasting their votes. Even if voters don’t find any candidate to be the best, they should choose between bad and worse.” He added: “To save democracy, all the parties should rethink this option.”

However, to the ruling party’s dismay, groups of discontented citizens across India are opting for NOTA as a form of protest against the mainstream parties. The Noida Extension Flat Owners and Members Association in Noida city of the North Indian state Uttar Pradesh campaigned to promote NOTA. The apartment buyers, connected to major housing projects in Noida and Greater Noida in the state, were aggrieved over years of delay in delivery of their units.

In Chennai, capital of the southern Indian state Tamil Nadu, members of a residents’ welfare association in Thyagaraya Nagar have made plans to cast their votes in favor of None of the Above, because their civic issues have not been solved for more than 13 years.

Even men’s rights activists in Bangalore, Karnataka, started a pro-NOTA campaign to demonstrate their protest against anti-dowry and other laws intended to protect women. Individuals have also taken to the streets to promote NOTA.

The opposition Congress party is not as spooked by NOTA. “It’s very much possible that a citizen of India is disillusioned with most political parties and feels that none of them deserves his vote,” said Congress spokesperson Sanjay Jha. The NOTA votes could go to any of the political parties but it is a message to the political system that it needs to improve, he added.

Asserting that the NOTA option ought to remain in a democracy and saying that Congress was not against it, he added: “Whatever percentage of votes NOTA gets is what I would call the very crucial swing votes that political parties should work hard to get.”

Reforming NOTA

Tadi Vidura, a media professional from Hyderabad, the capital of southern state Telangana, voted None of the Above in the 2014 general elections. He said he chose the option as he was not going to vote for either BJP or Congress and was not impressed by the candidate of Telangana Rashtra Samithi, a regional party.

But he lamented the fact that NOTA does not have enough power: According to the rules of the Election Commission of India, if the NOTA option receives the highest number of votes, the runner-up candidate is named the victor.

Advocate Sagina Waliyat said NOTA was not getting as many votes for two main reasons: a lack of awareness among many voters and NOTA’s own weakness as a political weapon. Waliyat, who runs awareness campaigns for NOTA in rural areas, said it could be bolstered if the “right to reject” candidates were recognized.

“If NOTA had stronger provisions, it would have given some sense of responsibility to political parties and raised accountability,” she added.

The State Election Commission of Maharashtra strengthened NOTA by making provision for fresh elections if NOTA received the most votes – essentially recognizing a “right to reject.” But NOTA advocates say it was Haryana that gave NOTA the power it needed.

Last year, the state’s election commission announced not only that NOTA’s getting the most votes would lead to fresh polls but also that candidates securing fewer votes than NOTA would not be eligible to contest the re-election.

The Haryana election commission noted that there was no provision in the local body acts and rules regarding NOTA but asserted that, under Article 243-K and 243-ZA of the Indian Constitution, the commission “has the requisite authority” to step into the breach by treating NOTA as a “fictitious electoral candidate.”

While the Election Commission of India is responsible for conducting elections to the Parliament and state assemblies, state election commissions conduct the elections for panchayats – village councils – and municipal bodies in their states.

NOTA and Maoism

In 2014 general elections, Chhattisgarh recorded higher NOTA votes in a region that has witnessed Naxal Maoist insurgency against the Indian government and where the outlawed rebels remain a strong presence. This region includes constituencies such as Bastar, Sarguja, Rajnandgaon and Kanker. None of the Above ranked third and had more than 30,000 votes in each of those places.

In 2013 state assembly election in Chhattisgarh, the NOTA share of the state’s vote total was a record 3.06%. Voters in Chitrakot, a small constituency in the Maoist-affected Bastar region, cast the state’s highest number of NOTA votes – 10,848.

“This is a way for voters who are completely disenchanted with the status quo to express their dismay through the ballot box,” Vaishnav told Asia Times. “Given the intractability of the Naxal conflict in these areas, there is widespread disaffection with traditional political parties.”

Sometimes voters hold back from voting None of the Above precisely in cases where outsiders might predict otherwise because so many candidates are criminal suspects. According to ADR’s analysis of election data (2013-2017), people did not choose NOTA significantly in Red Alert Constituencies, each of which had three or more candidates with criminal cases against them.

In Maharashtra, where 197 out of 288 constituencies were Red Alert, NOTA received only a 0.86% vote share. Only Chhattisgarh and Bihar, having 11% and 80% red alert constituencies, saw substantial NOTA voting.

ADR’s voter behavior survey found that 97.86% of voters questioned felt, generally speaking, that candidates with criminal backgrounds should not be in Parliament or a state assembly. But 35.89% of respondents nevertheless were willing to vote for a candidate with a criminal record if the candidate had done good work in the past.