For the first time in the history of India’s electoral process, voters have been given the liberty to reject outright the candidates competing in the poll fray. The rejection option – a clear exhibition of resentment on behalf of the voter – was not recorded in the past other than through vague attempts to draw conclusions from poll percentages. Rather than boycotting the electoral process, dissatisfaction can now be exercised by selecting the ‘None of the Above’ (NOTA) option provided on every Electronic Voting Machine (EVM) and ballot paper used in the 16th Lok Sabha elections.
The unprecedented nationwide reform came as a result of the Supreme Court of India’s landmark judgment on 27 September 2013 directing the Election Commission of India (ECI) to make necessary provisions on ballot papers and EVMs, noting that the initiative would increase electoral participation. Though a NOTA vote has no impact on the electoral race in a substantive sense (the candidate who secures the highest number of valid votes polled, irrespective of the percentage of NOTA votes, will be elected), a NOTA vote will nonetheless be recorded, providing a strong indication of electoral disenchantment. With a large number of candidates tainted by corruption, many argue that the NOTA option will act as a barometer of the quality of candidates running, as well as compelling political parties to nominate candidates of greater integrity.
The implementation of NOTA has gained wide acclaim across India. Pradeepika Saraswat, 25, a media student from Banaras Hindu University says that the choice of NOTA is long overdue as it provides voters the chance to reject those who they feel do not deserve to be on the ballot. “This is a much needed option… for the first time, voters like me can register NOTA which gives us the liberty to reject the candidates,” she said. Taniya Dutta, 26, a Journalist from New Delhi is more cautious, saying that even though NOTA has found many fans among India’s youth, it is important to understand that pressing the NOTA button on the EVM will have no bearing on election results. “I sincerely believe that rather than wasting our fundamental right to vote, we should meticulously choose a person whom we see as our leader,” she said.
Implications for Kashmir
In Indian-administered Kashmir (IAK), the contest between parties for parliamentary seats began in Jammu, the state’s winter capital, on 10 April. An increased voter turnout was recorded. In the Kashmir Valley’s south, amid boycott calls by separatist groups, pro-India parties and moderate separatists canvassed vigorously for their candidates in the lead up to polling on 24 April. Whatever their disposition to elections and their relationship with India, all political forces have their eyes on voter turnout in the Valley. A few months after the parliamentary elections, Assembly elections are scheduled.
Elections in IAK have their own troubled history. It is widely believed that the armed rebellion against Indian rule has its roots in Kashmir’s failed and maligned electoral experience. Even self-described pro-India politicians admit that the 1987 Assembly elections were rigged, with winning candidates forcefully dragged from counting halls and sent to jail, while the losers assumed their illegitimate Assembly seats. The insurgency began two years after the elections. One of the wronged candidates, Muhammad Yousuf Shah, became a militant commander (attaining the nom de guerre Syed Salahuddin) and is now heading the Muzaffarabad-based United Jihad Coucil.
Understandably, participation in the electoral process has been a point of contention. Separatist leaders have, since 1989, appealed to Kashmiris to boycott elections, arguing that the electoral process is being misused by the Indian Government at the international level to claim that the majority of Kashmir believes in Indian legitimacy, thereby framing azaadi (freedom) as a fringe preoccupation. Meanwhile, pro-India and moderate separatist parties are urging people to vote for them by claiming elections as essential for addressing issues such as development and employment while positing the process as irrelevant for the resolution of the longstanding Kashmir dispute. Given this polarisation, the impact of the NOTA option on voter participation is of significance.
Unlike the two constituencies of Jammu and Udhampur in Jammu division, the majority of prospective voters in south Kashmir failed to cast a ballot on 24 April. Seventy-two percent of eligible voters in the Anantnag constituency, which includes the districts of Anantnag, Kulgam, Pulwama and Shopian, didn’t vote, while a complete shutdown was enforced and incidents of stone-pelting were reported. As per the official data, 6.32 percent of votes were cast in Pulwama, 20.43 percent in Shopian, 36.68 percent in Kulgam and 37.76 percent in Anantnag district.
Political observers believe that despite the NOTA option, the low voter turnout reflects the public’s negative perception of the electoral process. According to Sheikh Showkat Hussain, political expert and Professor of Law at Central University of Kashmir, “There is a trust deficit concerning the whole of the election process in Kashmir, and it is not without reason. Right from its inception in the very first election, there has always been manipulation of the results. The first election saw 73 out of 75 members elected ‘unopposed’. The process continued and the rigging of the 1987 elections triggered the insurgency. The whole electoral process does not enjoy credibility among Kashmiris, whether NOTA or no NOTA.”
For 28-year-old doctor Younis Khalil, who didn’t vote in this election, polling in Kashmir is perceived differently than it is elsewhere. “We people here do not feel attached to and excited by the election process. If a prospective voter will go to a polling booth and will vote for some party, he will not show his finger for a photograph, but will keep his election participation as a secret to himself because of the stigma attached with the election process in Kashmir… a person who casts a vote is seen as supporting Indian occupation,” he said.
Another prospective voter, management professional Iftikhar Ashraf, 27, explained the apathy among the youth. “The youth in Kashmir have become more disinterested in pro-India politics than the elderly people due to nepotism and rampant corruption by politicians,” he said, adding that “the older generation, be it in urban or rural areas will vote because of the age-old sentiments they have, but I don’t think many young or first time voters will be seen outside of polling booths. If people came out in numbers and voted NOTA, India could declare it as a win for democracy.”
Prior to the elections, many pro-Indian politicians in Kashmir were expecting a solid voter turnout. With not even a single vote being cast at many polling booths, the low participation rate has surprised many. The lack of enthusiasm, however, reflects more than disenchantment with India. In Tral, Pulwama, just two days before polling, unidentified gunmen killed three persons including a sarpanch (a local government official), his son and a village headman. Less than one percent voter turnout was recorded. The incident came as posters urging an election boycott were displayed in town by a popular militant outfit, Hizbul Mujahideen, intimidating many. On polling day, the majority preferred to busy themselves with agricultural activities rather than vote.
Separatist leaders hailed the people of south Kashmir for boycotting the polls. Nonetheless, Syed Ali Geelani, Chairman of the Hurriyat Conference (G), claimed the official voter turnout was highly exaggerated, arguing that poll participation in south Kashmir was not more than three percent. Yasin Malik, Chairman of the Jammu & Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF), expressed his appreciation of the election boycott by the people of south Kashmir, saying “their courage, love and passion for freedom deserve congratulations.”
On 30 April, in the central Kashmir constituency, which includes the districts of Budgam, Ganderbal and Srinagar, a 26 percent voter turnout was recorded, a less than one percent increase on previous electoral participation. “The Srinagar district has recorded 11.46 percent of votes while Budgam and Ganderbal recorded 39.5 and 45.61 percent of votes respectively,” said Umang Narula, Chief Electoral Officer. More than 1500 preventive arrests were made by police a week before voters in central Kashmir went to the polls, purportedly to ensure free, fair and peaceful polling. The arrested persons were alleged to be stone-pelters, relatives of active militants and separatist leaders and activists. Nonetheless, as in Anantnag, stone-pelting incidents and protests were reported from many parts of Srinagar city on polling day. The situation became fatal when a youth was killed in Srinagar’s old city when the Central Reserve Police Force fired on protestors who had assembled to demonstrate against the elections. One person, Bashir Ahmad, was killed in the firing and five others, including a woman, were injured. Separatist leaders called for a shutdown in the entire Kashmir Valley following the encounter.
With polling in north Kashmir beginning on 7 May, it remains to be seen whether low voter turnout, violence and arrests continue. To date, it is clear that the NOTA option has had little impact on the enthusiasm of prospective voters within the Kashmir Valley. More than the acceptance or rejection of candidates, the political future of Kashmir depends on questions of deeper probity.
~Bilal Kuchay is a Srinagar-based journalist