April 5, 2009


Issue 25 - Apr 2009

Barun Mitra

IN THE aftermath of the terrorist strike in Mumbai in November 2008, many people expressed their anger and frustration at the political leadership. An idea that has gained new currency has been the decade-old proposal to introduce a negative option in the ballot – “None of the Above”, or simply the ‘No Vote’, to express lack of confidence in politicians as such. Even the Supreme Court has called for a larger bench to decide on a recent public interest litigation (PIL) filed by the People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL), asking for the introduction of the ‘No Vote’ in the ballot. The Election Commission of India has endorsed the idea too.
But the road to hell is often paved with good intentions. Thus,despite feeling disfranchised and frustrated by politics as usual, we must say ‘No’ to the idea of the ‘No Vote’. This is an idea that is actually anti-democratic in principle. It is based on a gross misunderstanding of our democratic institutions and electoral politics. Moreover, the implications of the ‘No Vote’ have hardly been thought through.
Democracy is not a system where the majority rules. Rather, democracy is a system where minority views need to be protected so that they have the opportunity and freedom to persuade people and peacefully win others to their side, so that today’s minority viewpoint has the potential to become the dominant opinion of tomorrow.
First, we need to take a look at the idea of representative democracy. In large countries, and with increasingly sophisticated rules of governance, direct democracy as seen in ancient Greece is hardly the appropriate mode of politics. In a referendum, voters can decide for or against a specific motion; however, when laws are set in a legislative chamber, based on debate and voting by elected representatives, the voter’s voice can only be represented, indirectly, by the legislator. By refusing to vote for a legislator, the eligible voter is, in effect, abstaining from participation in the entire political process.
We saw in the last few years, how people in different countries of the European Union, repeatedly voted ‘No’ on the question of the proposed European constitution. But that ‘No Vote’ was not against the idea of the representative democracy, but a vote against the proposed continental constitution. This gave a clear signal to the elected representatives of the climate of opinion prevailing in many parts of Europe.
A ‘No Vote’ on the ballot aimed at electing the representatives themselves, however, will only undermine the legitimacy of the process of representative democracy itself.
Let us extend the argument further. What would be the implications of such a ‘No Vote’ against the candidates contesting in the election in a constituency? Firstly, should the election be cancelled if the ‘No’ wins more vote than the candidates on the ballot? Or should re-polling be ordered only if 51% or more of the voters express lack of confidence in the existing slate of candidates? Suppose a fresh vote is ordered, should the previous set of candidates be allowed to stand again? In case the ‘No Vote’ turns out to be the dominant sentiment of the citizens in a constituency or a country, who would actually bear the responsibility for governance? Should the existing set of politicians just continue in office till the political deadlock over ‘No Vote’ is broken? Or should an unelected bureaucracy or nominated technocracy be asked to take over the reins of political power?
These are not rhetorical questions. Recently, Bangladesh held its election for the national parliament after a two year stint by a military-backed technocratic government. (The Bangladeshi constitution requires an interim non-political government to oversee the national election within a span of three months.) Both in the media and at polling stations, there were official advertisements and posters, informing people about the new choice on the ballot, the ‘No Vote’. On the day of the ballot, the voters gave a decisive verdict. Over 80 percent of the electorate turned out to vote. The ‘No Vote’, however, totaled a fraction of one percent of the votes polled. The highest tally for the ‘No Vote’, ranging between five and ten percent came in some individual polling booths—not even entire constituencies—in areas where the elite and educated of Dhaka reside.
This was a telling lesson for the Bangladeshi intelligentsia, many of whom had advocated the ‘No Vote’. The verdict of the people only exposed the wide divide between them and the ordinary voters who turned up in large numbers on polling day, in the hope of a better democratic future.
The Indian intelligentsia might not have the capacity to win the confidence of our fellow citizens and win at the ballot. But that is no reason to try and delegitimise representative democracy, or worse, seek to depoliticise political democracy.
Finally, it has been repeatedly said that our democracy has become unrepresentative and unresponsive, our politics devalued and debased. There is a much more than a grain of truth in those accusations. As Winston Churchill is quoted as saying, “It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government—except all the others that have been tried.”
The problems of democracy can only be dealt with even more democracy, and not by short-circuiting it.
Take the argument that Indian democracy is unrepresentative, because a typical representative can get elected with about 35 percent of the vote, in the winner take all first-past-the-post electoral system that we have inherited from the British and made it our own. Indeed, there are instances, when a winning candidate gets less than even 25 percent of the total votes polled. If we assume that in a typical election about the half of those registered to vote actually do cast their ballot, this means it is possible to enter parliament with the support of barely 12 percent of the voters in the constituency.
But is this low threshold a problem or strength of our democracy? Well, it is a strength, and is perhaps the single biggest one. The low threshold gives almost every candidate who wants to contest a hope that electoral success is not an impossible dream. This is perhaps one of the reasons why an increasing number of people contest the elections, and so many parties vie for a place. And this is perhaps also the reason why it is so difficult for sitting legislators to get re-elected. At just over a third, India has among the lowest re-election rate among established democracies anywhere in the world.
If we, the intelligentsia, fail to win the support of even so few or our fellow citizens in our own constituencies, should we blame the electoral process, should we blame the voters for their follies, or should we ask ourselves why are we so disconnected from our own people? Is it really fair to expect our fellow citizens who may spend a few hours to cast their ballot, to actually go to the polling station and cast his vote for the “No”? Do we really understand why so many poor people vote?
Another criticism we hear is that none of the candidates in a constituency may be suitable, because some of them may be tainted by charges of corruption and crime. So a ‘No Vote’ would be an expression of collective lack of confidence about the choices on offer. However, in a typical constituency these days, there are more than 10-12 candidates from different political parties and many independents. It should be eminently possible to support some of these against the tainted ones.
New political parties, and concerned citizens, are free to enter the fray and offer themselves as possible alternatives. With such low entry barriers, it is reasonable to think that if real alternatives are offered to the voters, and imagination of the voters captured, then voters are likely to make an informed choice. So an attempt to reject all the choices on offer is not so much of a lack of confidence in the slate of candidates on offer, but a lack of our own confidence in ourselves to enter the fray, and lack of confidence in our fellow citizens’ capacity to make a better choice.
The citizens of the world’s largest democracy might be much better off pondering why people who vote in such large numbers do take the trouble of voting at all? Why do they hold their cards so close to their chest that even professional pollsters and politicians find it so difficult to decipher the public mood till after the election?
As we head in to the fifteenth general election, rather than calling for the ‘No Vote’, we will do much better if we spend a little effort at understanding the fundamental basis of the largest democracy in the world. We may yet discover the secret of connecting to our people, of ways of reaching out to our fellow citizens with a new political message of revival. If we succeed, then rather than the “No”, we may suddenly find ourselves saying “Yes” to the democratic miracle that is India, and take the political plunge to wash away the ills that affect our system.

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