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New Delhi

In a major U-turn toward reforming electoral regime, the Supreme Court of India recently passed a slew of landmark verdicts. One of them includes bestowing the long-awaited ‘right to reject’ power on Indian voters. With the granting of this right to the voters, India has become the most progressive country in the world to initiate radical electoral reforms. 

The verdict rejoiced millions of Indian voters with a feeling of being truly ‘sovereign’ in the world’s largest democracy. “Democracy is all about choices and voters will be empowered by this right of negative voting,” a bench headed by Chief Justice P Sathasivam said in its order on 27 September, 2013. The judges said the negative voting right would help cleanse the political system. 

The Indian apex court has ordered the Election Commission to have a separate bottom in voting machines with an option ‘none of the above’. It gives people the option not to vote for any of the candidates in case they don’t like any of them. If ‘none of the above’ option gets maximum votes, it means all contesting candidates have been rejected by the voters. If this happens, a re-election is mandatory where none of the previous candidates will be allowed to fight elections again. 

The electoral reformists expect that negative voting right will improve political accountability and transparency in functioning of democratic polity. Association for Democratic Reform states that more than 1,400 sitting legislators in both the union parliament and state assemblies in India are alleged of various crimes. Right to reject power is likely to cost these tainted legislators’ political career in the parliamentary elections next year. 

The deficit of ‘optional voting right’ has led our power-hungry politicians to renege and ignore electoral mandate time and again. The last five years have shown how people’s aspirations and mandate to write a new constitution through the Constituent Assembly (CA) were dashed. Deep-seated political unaccountability and legislative underperformance today call for a policy deliberation on the need of such reforms in our context too. Our existing laws do not allow any such options to the voters. The laws instead allow the accused and corrupt convicts, unless decided by the last court, to contest the polls. With this electoral leverage, people are bound to vote for the corrupt and tainted candidates even in the upcoming CA-II election. 

In a democracy like ours, voters also do not have control over politicians once elected. To make elected representatives accountable to the people, some countries have even granted ‘right to recall’ power to the citizens to control politicians even beyond elections. Dissatisfied voters can replace or call back elected officials before the expiry of the term in office by using ‘recalling rights’. Nineteen states in the US today bestow right to recall on their citizens. Colorado, Louisiana, Michigan, Montana, North Dakota, Oregon, Washington DC and Wisconsin have separate recall laws whereas other states like New Jersey have constitutional provisions. California since 1903 and most recently Minnesota since 1996 have guaranteed the right to recall as a fundamental democratic right. 

If a specified percentage, usually 51 per cent of the electorate in a constituency, submits signatures and voter identity cards against the elected representative by invoking their right to recall power, the Speaker of the parliament should immediately remove him/her from office and a fresh election is announced in the constituency. North Dakota’s Lynn J Frazier in 1921 was recalled over a dispute about state owned industries and California governor Gray Davis was recalled in 2003 over mismanagement of the state’s budget. Fifty-five percent of the electorate had voted to recall Gray Davis. 

British Columbia, a western province in Canada, enacted the right to recall law in 1995. The voters in that province can petition the government to have a sitting representative removed from office. Canada initiated 22 recall efforts in January 2003 alone. These anecdotes tell us that underperformance and incompetence at the level of elected representatives can seldom be excused in a democratic system. Similarly, right to recall laws are also applicable to local bodies in some states of India. 

In August 2011, government of Bihar amended its Right to Recall Act for local bodies giving unlimited powers to citizens in recalling their mukhiyas, village chairmen, district board chairmen and members of three-tier local bodies for their underperformance. Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh states have already enshrined these rights in their local body legislations. 

One of the causes behind political and democratic degeneration today is the ineptness of our electoral system. It fails to ban criminal, corrupt and alleged politicians from contesting elections. As a citizen, why not initiate a debate for demanding ‘right to recall and reject’ to improve the shoddy electoral system. Without these reforms sooner or later, we can’t expect to clean up our corrupt and criminalized polity.

No matter how freely and fairly elections are held, the same tainted and incompetent leaders will be elected every time unless we have power to reject and remove them. - See more at:'+sovereignty%3A+Voting+with+options+&NewsID=393440#sthash.i0EqVI8p.dpuf

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