Hindustan Times
Smriti Kak Ramachandran

Gujarat elections: The ruling BJP has activated its cadre to ensure that voter turnout for the two-phase assembly election in Gujarat is higher than the last time and the none-of-the-above option doesn’t gain popularity, a senior party functionary said on Monday.

In the last assembly polls in 2017, the BJP was locked in a close battle with the Congress. Eventually, it won 99 seats in an election where turnout dipped from 71.32% in 2012 to 68.41% in 2017. In at least 20 seats, NOTA garnered the third-highest votes, bagging roughly 1.8% of the vote across the state, according to Election Commission (EC) data.

“There is always a fear that there might be voter apathy or complacency on the part of our supporters, which results in a low turnout. Therefore, the party has been focussing so intensely on panna pramukhs [party functionaries in charge of one page on the voter roll] and iterating the necessity of motivating the voters to cast their vote. This time, we are also underlining how NOTA is akin to wasting a vote,” said the functionary cited above, requesting anonymity.

The BJP is hoping to register its seventh straight victory in the upcoming assembly elections, which will occur in two phases on December 1 and 5. The results will be announced on December 8.

The BJP is hoping to buck anti-incumbency by dropping roughly 41 sitting MLAs, a year after it picked a new chief minister, Bhupendra Patel, and virtually changed the entire council of ministers.

In the 2017 elections, the party’s vote share rose compared to 2012 and its seat tally dipped. The Congress won 77 seats and won around 41% of the vote, according to election commission data.

In 2017, EC showed independents with 4.3% of the vote share were third while NOTA overall was fourth, with more votes than some regional parties such as the Nationalist Congress Party and Bahujan Samaj Party.

To be sure, the percentage of people who opted for NOTA in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls in Gujarat was lower than the assembly elections.

The BJP’s campaign against NOTA was backed by the ideological mentor, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). A functionary of the RSS based in Gujarat said even in 2017, the Sangh had focused on encouraging voters to not abstain from voting. “The RSS Sarsangachalak, Mohan Bhagwat, has explained why people should refrain from pushing the button (NOTA), because one must choose from the available best,” the functionary said, requesting anonymity.

Given that NOTA played a key role in deciding the fate of candidates in about 20 seats, the BJP is determined to ensure that the outcome does not recur, said the party functionary cited above. For instance, in Godhra the BJP candidate won by a margin of 258 votes, while 3,050 votes were polled by NOTA.

The functionary said the preference for NOTA is higher in two-party contests rather than in a triangular or multiparty contests. “In Himachal Pradesh too the NOTA votes showed an increase in 2012 as compared to 2017, where the BJP and the Congress were locked in a bipolar contest,” the functionary cited above said, requesting anonymity.

A second BJP functionary said the preference for NOTA was not entirely an outcome of voter dissatisfaction but could also be a result of voters not being able to select the right button on the electronic voting machine.

“Sometimes, some voters get confused, and they think of the last button (assigned to NOTA) as the first button on the machine… we had suggested to the EC to move the button somewhere in the middle to avoid confusion,” the second leader said.

A former chief election commissioner, however, said the button’s placement had not been broached by the parties and the reason was unlikely to contribute to its rising vote share.

Jagdeep Chhokar, founder member of the Association for Democratic Reforms, an election watchdog group, said the preference for NOTA indicated voter dissatisfaction with the candidates.

“Political parties have been actively campaigning against NOTA because the Supreme Court has said in a judgment that if NOTA polls more than the candidates, then political parties will be forced to put better candidates,” he said.

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