May 25, 2014

A Case for Proportional Representation

R Arun Kumar

THE recently concluded general elections, apart from spelling out the winner, also threw many interesting, but important sub-texts. Here are a few: No party has ever before won more than half the seats with a vote share of just 31 percent, the previous lowest vote share for a single-party majority was in 1967, when the Congress won 283 out of 520 seats with 40.8 percent of the total valid votes polled. The Congress secured 19.3 percent votes, winning 44 seats, while in 2009, the BJP secured 18.5 percent votes but won 116 seats. Both the BJP and the Congress together secured roughly over 50 percent of the vote share, meaning that nearly half of the people who voted did not opt for these major parties. In Uttar Pradesh, the BSP's stronghold, it managed 20 percent of votes, but did not win a single seat. In Tamil Nadu, the DMK and its allies garnered 27 percent votes and got no seats. In Odisha, the Congress got 26 percent votes but no seat while the BJP got 22 percent votes and one seat. In West Bengal, the Left Front got nearly 30 percent votes but won only 2 seats. Along with the above mentioned details, consider one another piece of statistical information: 31 percent votes were cast for the BJP, which is 20 percent of the eligible voters, which is 14 percent of India’s population. That means, potentially, 86 percent of India, 80 percent of eligible voters, and 69 percent of the votes cast were not for the BJP. This means, only 16.5 crores of Indians had voted for the BJP, out of the 54.1 crore people who had bothered to go to the polling booths. Still, the fact of the matter is, the BJP won an absolute majority on its own and is going to form a majority government to govern our country for the coming five years. This poses a question, if the present electoral system – first-past-the-post – is fair enough. Dr BR Ambedkar, piloting the discussion on the draft Constitution, laid great emphasis on two aspects, democracy and equal rights. He not only argued for 'one man, one vote' but also pitched for 'one man, one value'. Of course, here Babasaheb was arguing for 'economic democracy': “The soul of democracy is the doctrine of one man, one value”. According to him, “…it was equally essential to prescribe the shape and form of the economic structure of society, if democracy is to live up to its principle of one man, one value. Time has come to take a bold step and define both the economic structure as well as the political structure of society by the law of the constitution”. Leaving the question of economic structure apart (and even the social structure with all its embedded inequities), even the political structure is failing the concept of 'one man, one value'. The votes against the BJP in this election, or for that matter the Congress in the previous general election, have got no meaning. 31 percent of votes appear to command more value than the 69 percent. This, in any rational analysis should mean that there is something flawed in the Indian electoral model. Many countries in the world, many of them 'leading' democracies, did not opt for the Indian version of electing representatives. The system that we follow in our country, 'first past the post', is indeed a colonial legacy, copied from the British and hence prevalent in many of its former colonies. Ironically, even in Britain today there is an increasing demand to shun this system and go for a more representative and inclusive electoral system – the proportional representation system. Indeed a big majority of the democratic countries in the world are adhering to this system. Proportional representation, is an electoral system, wherein, elections are held in such a manner to ensure that the number of seats won by a party or group of candidates is proportionate to the number of votes received. This ensures a wider representation of diverse opinions in an elected assembly, reflecting a true democracy. After all, democracy as a rule of the majority is a skewed representation of the concept. True democracy should also respect the voices and concerns of the minorities (not just religious minorities but all shades of opinions, who on a given day might be political minorities, but might not remain as such forever), which would mean a greater reflection of the popular will. CONSTITUENT ASSEMBLY DEBATES Arguments for proportional representation found a resonance in the Constituent Assembly debates. “That system (proportional representation) is also profoundly democratic for it increases the influence of thousands of those who would have no voice in the government and it brings men more near an equality by so contriving that no vote shall be wasted and that every voter shall contribute to bring into Parliament a member of his own choice and opinion. Sir, another objection to the present electoral system is that the system does not even guarantee the rule of majority. We have innumerable instances of this type in England and America. The Conservative majority of 1924 was unreal because it polled 48 per cent of votes and it was supposed to be the majority party in the country. Then in America, Presidents Hayes and Harrison became Presidents in 1876 and 1888 when they secured votes less than the votes secured by their adversaries. In so far as this is concerned, the present electoral system is really perverse”. Isn't the situation we are in, similar? Another member argued: “Unless there is opposition, Sir, the danger of its (parliamentary democracy) turning itself into a fascist body is there...So, Sir, by this method (proportional representation) and by this method alone, I submit there can be a strong opposition in a parliamentary democracy. So my submission is, in the first place, on principle, there is nothing wrong in it and as I said, it is more scientific and democratic, and I submit, that it will enable sections having different views from the majority party to be returned and thus form an opposition to the party in power. Otherwise, it will degenerate the party in power into a fascist body”. These pleas for proportional representation were turned down in the Constituent Assembly on two grounds. One, that this system demands literacy on a large scale, which was non-existent during that period and many apprehensive of achieving it in the immediate future. Two, proportional representation would adversely affect the stability of the government, which was thought to be the core of parliamentary system of governance. The members of the Assembly cannot be accused of giving so much credence to 'stability'. One should remember the times and the questions posed by the colonialists on the Indians ability to govern, given their diversity. 63 years after the promulgation of our Constitution, much water had flown under the bridges of our rivers, with people becoming that much more mature. Literacy levels too have considerably improved. Moreover, the question of stability too needs to be debated afresh, given our experiences of coalition governments and minority governments since the last more than two decades. Above all, the fairness of the present election system warrants our urgent consideration. The tall claims of the Election Commission, of conducting 'free and fair' elections, ring hollow following the experiences of the 2014 elections. Fairness indeed was the worst sufferer, with the unabashed and unbridled splurge of money for campaigning. The BJP had used its corporate backing to the hilt to launch an advertisement blitzkrieg and bombard the country. The fairness in allocating all the national political parties equal amounts of time to reach their message to the people of our country through Doordarshan and AIR pale in comparison before this. Hundreds of crores of rupees was seized by the Election Commission, but that proved to be only a tip of the iceberg, as thousands of crores more were put into 'buying votes' and went undetected. The BJP was both the beneficiary and culprit-in-chief. Naturally the parties that are on the wrong side of the corporates, and stand for the interests of the working class, are at a disadvantage in this uneven contest. Money power tilted the balance, setting aside all the semblance for fairness. STRENGTHENS DEMOCRACY Proportional representation helps to contain the influence of money in elections to a large extent. Moreover, as the contest will be directly between parties and not candidates, the influence of caste, religion, region and other parochial considerations too can be curtailed. The desired change for a discussion on the policies of the various contesting political parties can be ensured. As people vote for parties, there need not be any worry that their vote will not count. Each vote counts, has an equal value and will add up to decide on the number of seats a political party wins. These are the things that really strengthen a democracy, as all shades of political opinion get a place for representation. Strong opposition, a hallmark of democracy, can check the otherwise possible transformation of parliamentary democracy to fascism. Let's end with a footnote: Adolf Hitler became the Chancellor of Germany in 1932 with a mandate of 33.1 percent of the German electorate. 66.9 percent of the Germans did not vote for him, just as 69 percent of Indians did not vote for Modi. PS: The Vice President of the Constituent Assembly on the day of the debates quoted in this piece stated: “Before we begin the business of the Houses, I have to inform Honourable Members that yesterday information was received that members of the RSS would somehow secure entrance into the lobbies and galleries in order to create disturbance. Fortunately, this was prevented.”