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Choiceless by choice? A NOTA vote is a cop-out

Choiceless by choice? A NOTA vote is a cop-out

A vote is meant to be a secret ballot, but here is an honest confession: Last Thursday, as I entered the polling booth, I was confronted with a strange sense of  confusion. The EVM seemed to stare at me with unusual ferocity and my finger grew weak. At the bottom of the list of candidates was, in screaming capital letters, the word ‘NOTA’. Should I be voting for ‘none of  the above’, I asked myself with ever-increasing angst.

I vote in the New Delhi constituency, one of the most prized battlegrounds in the country. The top three candidates here were the sitting MP of the Congress, Ajay Maken, the BJP’s Meenakshi Lekhi and the Aam Aadmi Party’s Ashish Khetan. You could argue that I was spoilt for choice and yet my finger was nervously twitching towards the NOTA button.

I know Mr Maken quite well. Almost two decades ago, we had travelled to Australia together as part of a youth delegation. I have found him amiable, communicative, and, in political terms, a “doer”. He is a relatively accessible MP, even making an annual trip to the walking club in our park to inquire into our grievances. As sports minister, he had shown the capacity to revive a dormant ministry with his unbridled enthusiasm. As the media in charge, he had been less effective, best remembered perhaps for the public snub he received from Rahul Gandhi with his “nonsense” remark on the government’s ordinance on convicted MPs. But for his high energy levels alone, he still seemed to deserve another term.

And yet, I hesitated. After all, the party which Mr Maken represented had provided the country with a weak and unfocused leadership for the last five years. The Congress-led UPA had presided over a series of scams, a slowing economy, rising inflation. The last five years had been a tale of missed opportunities and a litany of self goals. Would pressing the button in support of Mr Maken amount to an endorsement of five years of non-performance? Would it mean a vote of confidence in the untested and uninspiring leadership of Rahul Gandhi?  Surely, the Congress deserved to spend time in the Opposition. The pause button was pressed in the mind.

And so, I looked at the next candidate on the machine. I do not know Ms Lekhi. Actually, I do know her, but only from the confines of a TV studio. She is a feisty BJP spokesperson, a trifle too loud and overbearing at times, but then noise is the new mantra of news for some. She often has to defend the indefensible, and while I might disagree with her views at times, I have had a lurking admiration for party spokespersons who move from one studio to another with such aplomb on a daily basis. We need more women in Parliament, and Ms Lekhi might at least be a little more combative than those who dress up, smile and go home.

But again, I hesitated. The party which Ms Lekhi represented had an ideological worldview which, for all the attempted makeover, still seemed trapped in past animosities. The mask had almost slipped only a few days earlier when the BJP’s senior leader Amit Shah had been caught on tape calling for “revenge” through the ballot box. Did I want to vote for a party that at its core saw benefit in communal polarisation? Did I wish to give a stamp of approval to Mr Narendra Modi, a leader with administrative skills, but also with a troubling authoritarian streak, someone who had been economical with the truth about his and his parivar’s role in the riots of 2002? I was still in pause mode.

At which point I turned to the next name, Ashish Khetan of AAP. As a fellow-journalist, I had some natural affinity for Mr Khetan. He had even worked with us briefly at CNN-IBN. He was a bit of a sting master, a form of journalism that I can never entirely approve of and one which had once bitten me badly. But while there was a cowboy streak to his journalism, I admired his raw courage to take on the powerful at a time when a collusive media is a worrying trend. If he could bring that attitude to Parliament, maybe he could shake a few entrenched interests.

But for the third time, I remained ambivalent. Was AAP a solution to the larger governance crisis facing the country? Would a Lokpal-centric campaign be enough to end the cancer of  corruption in the country? Did the 49-day record of Arvind Kejriwal as Delhi chief minister suggest that some people are better off as streetfighters than being in power? And would a vote for AAP contribute to instability and chaos since the party had little chance on the national stage? Too many questions, no clear answers. I paused a final time.

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There were, of course, other names too on the voting machine, people I had never heard of, Independent candidates with similar sounding names and symbols who had perhaps only been put up to confuse the voter. I didn’t want to waste my vote, but neither did I have the clarity of mind that is sometimes necessary when you have ink on the finger. With every passing moment, the NOTA button was looking larger than life.

Finally, I did make a choice. A NOTA vote was in the final analysis a protest vote that would eventually have little bearing on the final verdict. Put simply, a NOTA vote was a cop-out. My hand moved away and I did vote for one of the recognised candidates. I won’t tell you who, and I don’t even know if the person will win. As I came out of the polling booth though, I did feel reassuringly empowered. At least on voting day, the aam aadmi can feel equal to a khaas aadmi.

The views expressed by the author are personal.

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