Elections are on us. We are all involved in the hustle and bustle of the election. While all political parties are in high gear convincing, even enticing voters to vote for them, the major question that is asked most often by voters is: Whom do I vote for? Actually it is not correct for any one to tell another whom to vote for, since it is entirely a personal decision for each individual voter to make but commenting on the process through which the decision to vote is made, is not out of place.

In trying to think about whom to vote for, we, the citizens, need to first understand what choice do we have. Almost all of us believe that we have a free choice on whom we vote for. This widespread and healthy feeling exists because we have been told over the years and we have come to believe that we have a “free and fair” election. This is what Indian democracy is known for all over the world. A simple question needs to be answered first of all. How does one become a serious candidate in the election? The normal response is ‘by filling up a nomination form’ but the word “serious” in the question is the tricky part. Historical data suggests that the proportion of independents contesting and winning elections is going down. Therefore, to be a “serious” candidate, one needs the approval, support, in short, “nomination” or what is popularly called a “ticket” from one of the established, recognized political parties.

How political parties “distribute” their “tickets” remains a mystery. The decisions of distributing tickets and the criteria used in the distribution of tickets is one of the most well guarded mysteries of the electoral process. Hoards of aspiring candidates and their supporters outside of the established political parties and outside the houses of the members of the “high commands” of political parties is one of the most common sights during the pre-election weeks. In this election, some political parties announced their candidates as early as one year before the due dates of the elections but then as the elections drew near; there were frequent changes in the tickets based on last minute pulls, pressures, and all kinds of inducements which were grist for the rumour mill.

The net result of the above process is that the voter is presented with a slate or list of candidates which are “chosen” by political parties to contest the election. What this means in actual practice is that the choice that we, as voters, can exercise is pre-constrained by the choices made by a set of political parties put together. Voters do not have a “free” choice but is limited by the choices made by the political parties which operate like an “invisible hand” which controls the choice that the voters can make.

The hegemony of political parties operates further, beyond controlling the choices of voters. Once elected, an MP or MLA is not free to vote according to his/her choice in the Parliament or the State Assembly respectively. Anti-defection was introduced in the country by the Fifty-second Amendment of the Constitution with effect from March 01, 1985 which added the Tenth Schedule to the Constitution. The essence of the anti-defection legislation is that if a party issues a whip on any issue under consideration in the legislature (Parliament or State Assembly), then every member of the legislature has to vote in accordance with the whip of the political party with whose support the legislature has been elected. In case any member votes against the whip of the party, his/her membership can be terminated.

Putting all of the above together, it can be safely said that political parties constrain the choices that citizens/voters can make while voting for candidates in the elections, and completely control the choices that so-called elected representatives can make while voting on legislation under consideration by the legislatures.

This invisible hand of the political parties also operates in some other very significant ways. The most glaring example is the so-called election of the highest office in the land, that of the President of India. Under the Constitution, the President is supposed to be elected by an electoral college consisting of all the MPs and MLAs, but in practical terms, it is the “leaders” of various political parties who first discuss among themselves as to who should be the President of the country, and if and when they come to a common conclusion, they then issues informal whips to the MPs and MLAs of their respective political parties which candidate to vote for. Given the tradition of whip, formal or informal, all MPs and MLAs fall in line and vote according to the direction of their party leaders. Thus the person desired and decided upon by about 30-35 persons in the country ends up being declared “elected” to the highest office in the land though s/he is, in fact, “chosen” by a relatively very small group of people as compared to even the electoral college, what to speak of the entire electorate.

It should be clear by now that it is the political parties who have a stranglehold on the entire electoral, political, and the democratic systems. However, the biggest irony is that political parties are not democratic in their internal 980nm laser  functioning. While that is a very large and complex issue, its relevance here is that if political parties chose their candidates in the election democratically, we, the voters, would have a much better choice.

However, even today we are not without an effective choice. The Supreme Court of India gave us a choice on September 27, 2013 when it directed the Election Commission to provide a button called “None Of The Above” (NOTA) on the electronic voting machines(EVMs) “so that the voters, who come to the polling booth and decide not to vote for any of the candidates in the fray, are able to exercise their right not to vote while maintaining their right of secrecy.” NOTA button was also used in the five state assembly elections held in December 2013 but it is the first time that it is being used nationwide in a Lok Sabha election. While lot more needs to be done for NOTA to achieve the full potential, it can still be an effective instrument in the hands of voters.

We can now answer the question: Whom should I vote for?

The very first thing every voter should do it to vote. Not voting is violating the most fundamental and sacred duty of the citizen.

The second thing every voter should do is to make an informed choice. Find out all one can about the candidates contesting from the constituency from all possible sources, of which there are many now, one prominent one being http://myneta.info/. We must make our most sincere attempts to choose a candidate that we think would be best out of the lot on offer.

If after all that effort, a voter comes to the conclusion that none of the candidates on the ballot, fulfills what one is looking for in the elected representative, it is only then that thevoter should press the NOTA button on the EVM.

It is extremely important to note that NOTA should not be the first choice of any voter. All of us, citizens/voters must find out all we can about all the candidates contesting the election from our constituency, and if and only if we find that none of candidates is good enough, only then should we use NOTA.

While making this, the most important decision we make as citizens of the country, we must not vote for candidates who have self-declared criminal cases pending against them.

Prof. Jagdeep Chhokar
Prof. Jagdeep S. Chhokar (Founder and Trustee, ADR) has a Ph.D. from Louisiana State University, USA and is a former Director In-charge of Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad. He had earlier worked with the Indian Railways as a mechanical engineer and manager for over a decade, and as international marketing manager with a public sector organization for four years. He has also taught at Universities in Australia, France, Japan and the US.
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