In Uttarakhand, yoga teachers anguished over the lack of jobs have joined other teachers associations with specific demands and threatened that they may press the “None of the Above” button in the Assembly elections in February. Activists in Didihat town of Pithoragarh district of the state, disappointed that their town was not given a district status, have announced that they will use the same strategy.

What sets this mode of protest apart from the traditional calls for poll boycott?

Threats to boycott elections as a protest if certain demands are not met are routine in the poll season. In recent years, NOTA choice available in the list of candidates has become an additional way for voters to express their disaffection with candidates and parties – or to press for their demands.

Indian citizens have had the option of NOTA since October 2013. It is not unique to India. In the state of Nevada in the United States, voters have been using a similar “None of these Candidates” ballot for all federal and state elections since 1975. The potential of this option was on full display in the recent Presidential elections. As many as 2.6% of the total voters in Nevada, the highest ever in the race for the President’s office, opted for NOTC in November, signalling their rejection of the two major contenders. This number was 0.6% in the contest between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney in 2012.

Removing ambiguity

Many of these voters could have chosen not go to the polls at all, after finding that they did not like any of the candidates. This conscious decision to abstain in protest could easily be misinterpreted as one driven by a lack of interest in elections, and confusion about the available choices. Abstention from voting, as evident from empirical studies across the world, is open to multiple interpretations. This ambiguity is in principle absent from Nevada’s NOTC and India’s NOTA options. They clearly capture dissatisfaction and are able to put a number on it.

While mass demonstrations are a highly visible form of protest, all citizens may not have the motivation or resources to come out on the streets. Voting, through the regular channel of elections based on universal adult suffrage, is a more common form of political participation. It is also “less unequal”, in the words of political scientist Arend Lijphart.

Before the threat of using NOTA, teachers belonging to the Yoga Qualified Unemployed Federation in Uttarakhand had threatened self-immolation and poll boycott, gone on fast and marched on the streets. Their agitation for secured jobs as yoga instructors in public schools in the state began in 2008, and members have been on a continuous dharna in the state’s capital Dehradun since 2014, said Rakesh Semwal, the president of the federation.

“We are opposed to all political parties who have only given us assurances and want them to know how unhappy we are with their politicking,” Semwal said in a telephone interview, explaining that the 15,000-odd members of his federation have decided not to vote for any party in February, and will press the NOTA button in constituencies where there are no “able” independent candidates.

Travelling across the state to scout for such candidates, Semwal said he had found only one , at the time of interview on January 26. Uttarakhand goes to polls on February 15. “There was a time when we used to be excited to vote for candidates,” he said. “But having realised that they don’t do anything upon coming to office, that enthusiasm has waned.”

Does it make a difference?

It is important to note that NOTA is a non-binding option. There is no provision to invalidate the election if NOTA numbers cross a certain percentage or garner the highest number of votes in a constituency. This has led many to argue that NOTA does not affect the election outcome and adds to wasted votes. The numbers, however, tell a slightly different story.

The average NOTA vote was between less than 1% and 3% in the one Lok Sabha and 20 State Assembly elections it has been used in so far. In India’s highly competitive elections, this small number is significant: 62 of the total 543 seats in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections were won by a margin of less than 3%. Moreover, NOTA votes exceeded the winning margin in 23 parliamentary constituencies across India. As NOTA can split the electorate in ways that not only reduce margins but also jeopardise a candidate’s majority, parties in their pursuit of victory cannot ignore such voters and their demands.

The Nilgiris, from where the 2G telecom scam accused A Raja stood for elections, and Maoism-affected Nabarangpur and Bastar constituencies polled the highest NOTA votes in 2014. Of the five parliamentary constituencies in Uttarakhand, Almora – reserved for Scheduled Caste candidates – accounted for the highest percentage of NOTA voting in the state. As many as 15,245 or 2.3% of the total voters in the constituency chose NOTA in 2014. Interestingly, this was after 25,000-odd people from remote villages in Almora district in the constituency unanimously wrote to the officials that they would boycott the election as they were angry with disrupted work on crucial roads and bridges, according to a Times of India report in March 2014. This shows that NOTA has the capacity to translate democratic discontent into votes, and send a meaningful signal to public representatives.

‘We wanted to show something’

NOTA was launched when young urban Indians were not only getting more vocal about their demands, but were also willing to come out and demonstrate their concerns. The Anna Hazare movement in 2011 and the protests against the Delhi gang-rape case in 2012 are examples of this new urban trend. The awareness and activism seems to be extended to young urban participation in elections. The young are increasingly interested in election meetings and campaigns, show surveys conducted by the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies.

Unhappy with the system and the lack of choice thrown up by parties, these young voters are more likely to use their capacity to articulate discontent and could be significant users of the NOTA option, rather than simply boycotting elections. By choosing to express their disapproval of the candidates on offer, they are making it clear that they are not giving up on the system but want to and can do something to change it.

An example of citizens using NOTA creatively to make their voice heard was seen in the run-up to the Kerala State Assembly elections last year. Political parties have not been giving women tickets to contest and consequently women were inadequately represented in the state, argued a women’s organisation, Women Integration N Growth Through Sports. The group, better known as WINGS, decided to support women candidates across parties and campaigned for the use of NOTA option in constituencies where there was no woman candidate. One of the campaigners, Sunita PG, said over the phone in January that boycotting the elections was not an option. “If we sit at home, people will think we are absent,” she said. “But we wanted to show something.”

Around one lakh, or 0.5% of the total voters in Kerala chose NOTA last May. On an average this was about 766 voters per constituency. The two assembly constituencies of Thrissur city, where WINGS focused its campaign, recorded a higher proportion of NOTA votes: the option bagged 1,151 votes in Ollur and 1128 votes in the Thrissur constituency.

Not wasted

As seen in the instances above, the NOTA vote not only improves expression via ballot by increasing choice but also draws into the political discourse responses that would have otherwise remained apolitical or apathetic. The option also is difficult to underestimate because a significant number of people press the NOTA button. If we dismiss NOTA as wasted votes, we fail to see the range of opinions it highlights, especially in case of discontent.

Garima Goel is a Research Masters student in Contemporary India at the King’s India Institute, King’s College London