In a historic verdict that will empower the Indian voter, the Supreme Court Friday said for a vibrant democracy electors must have the right to reject all the candidates in the fray with the option of "none of the above (NOTA)" in voting machines and on ballot papers.
The Election Commission said it is possible to provide the 'right to reject' option in the forthcoming assembly polls subject to feasibility. If the poll panel is able to include the option in the Electronic Voting Machines, then it could see voters in five state assemblies later this year using the option as well as during next year's general elections.
With this, India joined the distinguished club of 13 nations that have the provision, including France, Belgium, Brazil, Greece, Bangladesh, Finland, Sweden, the US, Colombia and Spain.
Activists, the public and politicians have hailed the apex court decision.
A bench of Chief Justice P.Sathasivam, Justice Ranjana Prakash Desai and Justice Ranjan Gogoi said, "... in a vibrant democracy, the voter must be given an opportunity to choose none of the above (NOTA) button, which will indeed compel the political parties to nominate a sound candidate. This situation palpably tells us the dire need of negative voting."
"We are of the considered view that in bringing out this right to cast negative vote at a time when electioneering is in full swing, it will foster the purity of the electoral process and also fulfil one of its objectives, namely, wide participation of people," the court said in its judgment.
Democracy is all about choice and this choice can be better expressed by giving the voters an "opportunity to verbalize themselves unreservedly and by imposing least restrictions on their ability to make such a choice", the judgment said.
"By providing NOTA button in the EVMs (electronic voting machines)," the court said, "it will accelerate the effective political participation in the present state of democratic system and the voters in fact will be empowered."
While the Congress was cautious about the verdict, the BJP welcomed it.
Information and Broadcasting Minister Manish Tewari said all aspects of the verdict "needs to be studied carefully and consultations held".
Ajay Maken, head of the Congress' media cell, said: "In principle, we have no problem with it but there are certain issues for which we want to read the entire order."
He added: "This order doesn't say anything new because earlier also people who did not want to vote for lack of choice did not go to the polling stations. Now, they can go to the polling station and register their protest."
Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi said: "I wholeheartedly welcome this. I am sure it will have a long lasting impact on our polity and will be a great step in the direction of further electoral reforms that can make our democracy even more vibrant and participative".
But Trinamool Congress leader and West Bengal Panchayat Minister Subrata Mukherjee termed the verdict "needless" and "not required."
The People's Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) that had moved the apex court in 2004 with a plea that voters should have a right to negative vote hailed the ruling.
Justice Rajindar Sachar of PUCL told IANS, "We had initiated this plea and now the SC has agreed to it, we are very happy."
Welcoming the ruling, Aam Admi Party (AAP) leader Arvind Kejriwal termed it the first major step towards electoral reforms.
Pronouncing the judgment, Chief Justice Sathasivam said: "When the political parties will realize that a large number of people are expressing their disapproval with the candidates being put up by them, gradually there will be a systemic change and the political parties will be forced to accept the will of the people and field candidates who are known for their integrity."
He said it would promote democracy and send clear signals to political parties and their candidates as to what the electorate thinks about them. Though right to vote was a "statutory right", the court said this "statutory right is the essence of democracy