Thursday, June 4, 2009

Flawed Indian Democracy

Phoney electoral systemKingshuk Nag Thursday June 04, 2009

We do not tire of shouting from the rooftops that India is the greatest democracy in the world and cite the cases of banana republics, where elections are rarely held, to prove this point. "Dil bahlane ke liye" this is a good argument but in reality we have a phoney electoral system. That is why candidates win a seat by securing just 20% of the votes.This in reality means that 80% of the electorate voted against a winning candidate or did not vote at all. How then can such a winner be called a representative of the people?

Well, that's how our system is, which is why I call it a phoney electoral system. Now sample more: Never in the history of India has any political party come to power with more than 50% of the votes that were cast, in its favour. Except once. That's was the 1984 elections, which were held under the shadow of Mrs Indira Gandhi's assassination. Rajiv Gandhi's Congress won 51% of the votes and 415 seats out of 545 in Lok Sabha or 77% of the seats. This is the distorted system that we have: a lesser percentage of votes converts into a much bigger percentage of seats. Since all of us look at seats and not carefully at the votes secured by the winner we fall into an illusion, a "maya jaal". We think the winning party has got a massive mandate or has swept the polls!

In recent times, ruling parties have come to power winning a much lesser aggregate of votes and this is true of both the Congress and the BJP. Both of them have secured power at the Centre by polling just about 28%er cent of the votes. So, how representative are they? What is the popular mandate they have?

Take this hypothetical example and see the distortion in the system: Imagine that all your MPs have been elected with 30% votes. Now for a bill to be passed in the Lok Sabha and become a law (which you and me have to adhere to) requires 50% of the MPs voting for it. That means 15% of the people's mandate (50% of 30%). So without 85% of the mandate of the people, the lawmakers can thrust a law on to us! Now you know why so many laws in the country are followed in breach?

But don't lose heart. These distortions can easily be corrected if we change our electoral system. This system that we have is called the first-past-the-post system (FPTP) and like everything else we have borrowed it from the Angrez. The rest of Europe does not follow this system. There they have more representative systems like proportional representation or double ballot. There is also the better single transferable votes system as followed in Australia. In Germany you have a hybrid system: 50% of the seats are won by the FPTP and the other 50% by proportional representation.

Let me tell you, to change the system does not require any constitutional amendment. The constitution merely says that there will universal franchise in India and that each person will be eligible for one vote only. The electoral system was enacted by the Representation of the People Act 1950 and 1951. Merely by amending the law we can change the system. But the question is: who will bell the cat? Certainly not our present crop of politicians who have got used to operate and win by it. You and I, dear readers, will have to take the initiative.


145 MPs won LS polls with less than 20% votes

4 Jun 2009, 0340 hrs IST, Atul Thakur & Shankar Raghuraman, TNN
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Bhola Singh, who won the Nawada Lok Sabha seat in Bihar for the BJP, represents a constituency that had a population of 20.6 lakh at the time of
the 2001 census and is probably closer to 25 lakh now. Almost 14 lakh were registered voters for these elections. But Singh won by polling just 1.3 lakh votes or less than 10% of the electorate.

To be fair to Singh, his is an extreme example but candidates winning with the votes of only a minor fraction of the electorate are common enough. As many as 145 of the 543 MPs elected in the latest elections had less than 20% of their electorate voting for them.

Blog: Phoney electoral system

Singh's more famous partymen, Murli Manohar Joshi, Lalji Tandon and Hukumdeo Narayan Yadav all won with about one-eighth of their electorates voting for them. Union ministers Salman Khursheed and Farooq Abdullah also got past the post similarly, while new Lok Sabha Speaker Meira Kumar, got the vote of less than a seventh of her electorate.

Is there no way to ensure that our MPs are more representative of the electorate than they are at the moment? The question assumes importance because if it is enough to please a small proportion of the electorate, the temptation to indulge in the worst kind of sectarian politics becomes huge.

Compared to the many that romped home with less than 20% vote of the total electorate, just five MPs — the ones representing Nagaland, Sikkim, the two Tripura seats and Tamluk in West Bengal — got the votes of a majority of their respective electorates. Overall, the average MP in the 15th Lok Sabha got the votes of barely a quarter of his or her electorate.

It wasn't always like this. TOI analysed Lok Sabha elections since 1977 and found that there is a long-term trend towards MPs garnering a smaller and smaller part of the total registered voters in their constituencies. In 1997, for instance, the average MP got the votes of 35.7% of the electorate, which is now down to just 25.7%.

The reasons for this are easy enough to understand. A combination of low turnouts and multi-cornered contests in several states means that people can win with even as little as 10% of the electorate rooting for them. Polling percentages haven't changed very much over the last 32 years.

The turnout was 60.5% in 1977 and just a little lower at 58.2% this time. But theelectoral arena has got much more competitive now with several contenders in the fray.

This also explains why the situation varies so much from state to state. In Jharkhand, the average MP this time round has won with the votes of just 16.9% of the electorate. The figures for J&K (17.4%), Bihar (17.7%) and Uttar Pradesh (17.7%) are not very much better. In J&K, the main reason is the turnout of under 40%, but in the three other states it is a combination of low polling and extensive splintering of the vote.

This might seem like a powerful argument for a two-party system, but it isn't really. Among the sizeable states, the best track records are those of West Bengal and Kerala.


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