As India’s voters go to the polls in a few weeks, they will be faced with one additional choice on their electronic voting machines – the option to reject all the candidates on the ballot, and to vote ‘None of the Above’ (NOTA). The decision to include this option was taken by India’s Election Commission in advance of state (provincial) level elections towards the end of 2013 and voters in Delhi, Chattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Mizoram were able to exercise their right to vote by denying support to all those who were contesting the election in their constituency.
The reason that this option has been included is to allow voters to register their disillusionment with the mainstream political process. This is politics as anti-politics, and has potentially profound implications for the practice of electoral democracy in India.
One factor that might be contributing to this level of alienation of the electorate from politicians is the perception that the political system is deeply and irrevocably corrupt, and that those who survive in such a system offer little by way of fresh alternatives, especially for the young, first-time voter who represents the ‘new’ India. ‘Generation Next’ does not have any time for the old politics of identity and vote banks, of influence that is bought and sold, and of horse-trading between parties to create a governable majority in Parliament, regardless of ideology.
The anti-corruption crusade spearheaded by Anna Hazare in 2011 seemed to reflect this mood, and the young (often middle-class) volunteers who joined this movement were, united in their criticism of mainstream politics indeed their rejection of political process in favour of mass mobilisation – their impatience and lack of faith in democratic institutions perhaps best exemplified by their hope that the voice of the streets would prevail in new legislation without having to bother with the delays and compromises that normally result from Parliamentary discussions.
Some of this momentum against the mainstream political process was subsequently captured by the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), started by a number of key figures in the Anna Hazare movement (but not Hazare himself). Led by charismatic former civil servant Arvind Kejriwal, the party received unexpected, and overwhelming support, from voters in the Delhi state elections in December 2013, upsetting the previous dominance of the Congress and BJP in the national capital. Kejriwal defeated the incumbent Chief Minister, Sheila Dixit, in her home constituency, and his party was (briefly) able to form a minority government(with outside support from the defeated Congress party), keeping out the BJP (which secured the largest number of seats in the state assembly, but fell short of an absolute majority). The AAP government did not last long, with the Chief Minister finally resigning over a disagreement over the procedure for the introduction of the state-level anti-corruption legislation.
The electoral success of AAP candidates in Delhi – often young, untested and relatively fresh, many from professional and non-political backgrounds – was surprising, as very few would have expected such individuals to stand much of a chance in the normal rough and tumble of Indian politics. Indeed, evidence from similar attempts in other parts of the country would suggest that the pace at which AAP was able to convert this unhappiness into electoral success is somewhat unprecedented.
For instance, in Madhya Pradesh, a coalition of activists and social movements has attempted to break into the electoral arena ever since the mass mobilization that took place against the building of the Narmada dam, displacing thousands and flooding the homes and forests of many communities. The Narmada dam, for these activists, represented all that was wrong with the neoliberal, globalised model of development that has dominated India since the 1990s. At its height, the movement enjoyed mass support in the Narmada valley, especially amongst its adivasi (tribal) populations.
As for most mass social movements, the decision to enter electoral politics was not taken lightly. The electoral arena is often seen as (personally) self-serving, corrupt and the purity of the social movement is potentially put at risk from the decision to engage with the everyday reality of Indian elections.
However, what clinched the argument for these committed activists was the reality that, despite the strength of anti-dam feeling in the Narmada valley, the only candidates who were ever on offer were from the Congress or the BJP parties (who have remained dominant in Madhya Pradesh), both parties that had continued to support the building of the dam. The existing political process was failing to offer options that represented the voice of the people, and the only way that this could be better reflected in the democratic process was by the social movements themselves entering into electoral politics.
Ever since 2003, these movements have fought elections in the region of Madhya Pradesh where they have greatest influence. Their candidates have been allegedly subjected to intimidation and harassment by the mainstream parties, and have failed to make any significant breakthrough in terms of voter support. The movements themselves are not disheartened, recognising that overturning the entrenched parties is a long-term game, not one that is likely to provide instant results.
So, what differentiates the Narmada valley from the streets of Delhi? Why were the non-mainstream political forces able to secure such dramatic support in the state elections in the national capital, while their co-passengers in the social movements in Madhya Pradesh have not been able to demonstrate equal success? Part of the answer lies in the role of communication and media in the modern electoral process, which is potentially most influential in a city like Delhi, where voters have access to 24 x 7 news channels, social media and mobile phones. There is also the reality that the appeal of the Madhya Pradesh social movements is diluted in state-level assembly constituencies, where their campaigning issues of land, water, forests and livelihoods do not necessarily resonate as much with the wider electorate as they do with their core adivasi supporters (in contrast to the potentially more encompassing anti-corruption platform that was the centerpiece of the AAP campaign in Delhi).
AAP has decided to fight the Parliamentary elections, and it will be interesting to see whether their success in Delhi is replicated more widely across the country. Their supporters are trying to mobilise in a number of regions, and there is some expectation that their presence will disrupt the usual rhythms of the electoral process. Interestingly, Medha Patkar, stalwart of the anti- Narmada dam movement, has been nominated as an AAP candidate in the urban constituency of Mumbai – is this a convergence of the broader social movement agenda with that of AAP?
In other places, those voters who want to register their protest against the mainstream parties might find that the only option for them is ‘None of the Above’. NOTA did not get large support in the 2013 Assembly elections. It remains to be seen whether more voters will push that button in the coming Parliamentary elections. If they do, it represents a worrying trend – far better for the system to generate candidates who can attract a positive vote because they represent genuine alternatives, than to reject politics altogether. Anti-politics is no long term solution to the challenges that confront Indian democracy – only political engagement can result in change for the better.
Dr Bhaskar Vira is Senior Lecturer at the Department of Geography, University of Cambridge, and Director of the University of Cambridge Conservation Research Institute. He works on the political economy of development, and the relative roles of state, civil society and market institutions in governing resources and landuse, with a particular focus on contemporary India. His research focuses on the justices and injustices that result from economic change, and is especially concerned with impacts on marginalised groups.
(Related links: Special Issue of Contemporary South Asia)