"I vote nobody" – Rule 49-O

In the wake of the Mumbai terrorist attacks, frustration over government inaction and incompetence has boiled over among India’s educated class. In a sick sort of way, the terrorists’ deliberate attempt to target upper income and foreign nationals, done to give them more visibility in the global arena, seems to have had an unexpectedly beneficial side effect- that of waking up the apathetic Indian elite.(Here is an interesting article in the NYT about it.)

Hundreds of protests and vigils have been organized in the last week and calls for reform have been ringing across the nation. One such well-intentioned but misguided email doing the rounds is “I vote nobody”, a viral mail exhorting voters to demand a form that allows him/her to vote for “nobody” at the polling booth.

Why should you go and say “I VOTE NOBODY”… because, in a ward, if a candidate wins, say by 123 votes, and that particular ward has received “49-O” votes more than 123, then that polling will be cancelled and will have to be re-polled. Not only that, but the candidature of the contestants will be removed and they cannot contest the re-polling, since people had already expressed their decision on them. This would bring fear into parties and hence look for genuine candidates for their parties for election. This would change the way; of our whole political system… it is seemingly surprising why the election commission has not revealed such a feature to the public….

First, let’s see what 49 O really says-

Rule 49-O of The Conduct of Elections Rules, 1961 (as amended) reads:-
“49-O.   Elector  deciding  not  to  vote.-If  an  elector,  after  his electoral  roll number has been duly entered in the register of voters in  Form-17A and has put his signature or thumb impression thereon  as required  under  sub-rule (1) of rule 49L, decided not to  record  his vote,  a remark to this effect shall be made against the said entry in Form  17A  by  the  presiding  officer  and  the  signature  or  thumb impression of the elector shall be obtained against such remark.”

Unlike in the US, there is no room on the Indian ballot to write-in a candidate. With a paper ballot, it is easy to waste your vote by just marking multiple candidates. Since you can’t do that on an electronic voting machine, you can ask for a separate form ( which most voting locations don’t have, as Geeta Padmanabhan found out) to mark your protest vote. But then your vote is no longer secret. It appears that the Election Commission recommended in 2004 that “the law should be amended to specifically provide for negative / neutral voting.” This hasn’t happened yet.

Either way, it is a wasted vote. Contrary to the claims of the email, the interpretation of 49-O as it stands appears to be vague enough to allow the winning candidate’s election to stand regardless of the number of protest votes. (In the US there have been some notable write-in candidates but mostly the space is used by mischievous voters to write in their own name or characters like Mickey Mouse!)

What is ironic that an entire class of people who have chosen not to exercise their vote for many, many years should want to make their first foray into the voting booth as a protest move. Maybe if everyone who was well educated and well informed actually bothered to participate in the political process, the look of Indian government would be very different today. Basab writes in an excellent post

In India we need our own political revolution. This has to be led by educated voters who are more discerning, wherever they are. They need to roll up their trousers (or sarees) and wade into the murky waters of Indian politics. They don’t have to become politicians but they must become more engaged. Politics is a contact sport. You can’t bring about change by shouting advice from the stands.

Instead of futile grandstanding like “I vote nobody”, what educated and well-off people in India should be doing is take that risky but crucial plunge into politics. Maybe the best way to do it is to start a new party, like Loksatta . Maybe the solution is to start at the bottom rung of existing parties and slowly work your way up and reform the system that way. Either way, channel your energies into participation, not rejection. What matters is you get your feet wet. If enough people resolve to never forget Mumbai, you can trust in the power of a mass movement.

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