Thursday, September 22, 2011

First-past-the-post system has distorted Indian Parliamentary democracy

(First published in The Pioneer dated September 21, 2011)


Social activist Anna Hazare’s call for the next agitation to press for comprehensive electoral reforms is certain to ruffle feathers across the political spectrum. But, while the demand is not directed at any political party in particular, the UPA is likely to bear the brunt of the attack since it is the ruling combine for now. It is also a sitting duck after the amateurish manner it handled Team Anna’s Lok Pal Bill campaign, and was forced to concede the upper hand to the agitationists. Since that is widely regarded as a victory for the people long accustomed to and seething from within by the all-pervasive corruption in government functioning, any fresh onslaught over another issue of ‘people’s empowerment’ is guaranteed to trouble the central government.

If the government has learnt any lesson at all from the past, it should waste little time in formulating a strategy that demonstrates its sincere readiness to reform an electoral process which allows criminal elements to contest elections, candidate with minuscule percentage of votes to emerge winners, and victors the security of continued representation until the next elections regardless of their shoddy performance and betrayal of the people’s mandate. But many of these issues can be tackled only through structural changes in the electoral laws, changes that our policy makers have so far been reluctant to address with any seriousness. All that they have done is tinker with the provisions here and there to provide an impression of work in progress. But that work has been in progress for far too long and with little palpable result, leading to frustration and anger among the people.

The citizens do appreciate that poll reforms are complex matters and cannot be done overnight by a stroke of the pen. Yet, such changes have to begin somewhere, and begin credibly. That has not happened – perhaps because our politicians have not felt the people’s ire so far on the issue.

One of the most hotly-debated points that could form the core of the demand for structural reforms is a review of the first-past-the-post system. The issue has the ability to strike a chord with the people. There is no doubt that several experts have raised questions about the wisdom to tamper with the current system, but then there are as many other eminent persons who believe that the change can be brought about if the political class is sincere about qualitative electoral reforms.

So, is the government serious about structural reforms? It does not appear so. The Prime Minister is supposed to call an all-party meet to discuss poll reforms, but from what Union Law Minister Salman Khursheed has recently said, it is clear that the crucial issue may not figure in the discussion. The reluctance of the government to address the matter is evident also from the Background Paper on Electoral Reforms prepared by a core committee under the Union Law Ministry and co-sponsored by the Election Commission of India in December 2010. The report candidly states: “A number of committees have discussed major structural reforms of the electoral system, such as a shift away from the first past the post system of representation. We will explore options for electoral reforms within the framework of the current system and will not address these larger structural issues in this paper.”

This was an opportunity gone waste, because it was perhaps for the first time that the Union Law Ministry was directly involved in an elaborate exercise to discuss poll reforms. Until then, only the Election Commission of India was seen as the torch-bearer for such changes. By limiting deliberations to the “current framework”, there will be very little of the changes that the people want, and can be made. Since the background paper is an assimilation of the various points of views that have come before the government through recommendations from various panels on electoral reforms, no harm would have been caused if suggestions for structural changes too had been included.

But, by not doing so the central government cannot wish away the matter. Sooner than later it will have to take the bull by the horns, because public demand for such changes is growing by the day. Former Chief Election Commissioner T S Krishnamurthy in his book The Miracle of Democracy says, “There is also an urgent need for public debate on the first-past-the-post system…” He quotes former Supreme Court judge, Justice V R Krishna Iyer, who in his characteristically blunt style remarks, “This is not government by the people. If adult suffrage and its majority presence through the polls are to be a reality, considerable legal and strategic changes are necessary…” These are just the kind of changes that only a structural reform can achieve.

Former Union Home Secretary Madhav Godbole in his masterful study of parliamentary democracy, reflects on the first-past-the-post system in his book India’s Parliamentary Democracy on Trial that, “In such a situation, the ruling political party with the largest number of seats does not enjoy the real mandate of the people in terms of the vote share.”

Godbole argues that it would be best to discard the first-past-the-post system which is responsible for victors to emerge in elections despite polling a minority number of votes. He points out, “In the election to Uttar Pradesh Assembly held in 2007, 96.53 per cent of the winners polled less than 50 per cent of the votes cast.”

Let us look at some other figures. In the 2004 Lok Sabha elections, only 40 per cent of winners were elected by polling more than 50 per cent of the total votes cast. The rest polled a minority number. As former Union Minister and author Arun Shourie points out in his book, The Parliamentary System, “99 per cent of the members got into the Lok Sabha by getting less than half the electors to vote for them.”

He provides another figure that explains the disdain of many of our politicians to meaningful reforms in the electoral system. In elections to the Uttar Pradesh State Assembly seats between 2001 and 2005, for instance, 62 per cent of candidates became the ‘people’s representatives’ by attracting less than 20 per cent of the votes.

Clearly then, the first-past-the-post system has yielded a distorted picture of voter preference over the decades, and that fact was reiterated even more than a decade earlier, in a May 1999 report on electoral reforms prepared by the Law Commission of India. It observed, “…What is happening is that a political party which has received, say 32 per cent of the total votes cast, is obtaining 70 per cent of the seats in Parliament.” But the Commission then went on to suggest a rather complicated system, under which some seats would be filled according to the first past the post system and some from the list of candidates provided by the political parties. But that still leaves the problem of the inequities of the first-past-the-post system.

The biggest and the most important stakeholder in our parliamentary democracy is the ordinary citizen. He cannot be any more short-circuited by a system that compels him to accept as his representative a candidate who has not been chosen by the majority number. The first-past-the-post system should be abolished and replaced instead with a provision that, for a candidate to win, he must secure 50 per cent of the total votes polled plus one more. That will certainly be a better form of people’s representation in the Parliament and the state Assemblies.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Soft government, soft state, hard terror

(First published in The Pioneer on September 8, 2011)


The high intensity terror attack at the Delhi High Court on Wednesday, September 7, underscores the bitter reality which the UPA Government obstinately refuses to concede: We are a soft state that has spectacularly failed to decisively act against terrorism. We are open to being pounded by terrorists again and again and again. The softness comes not merely by the fact we have become such an easy target, to be picked at will, but also by the more worrisome truth that we have done little to put fear into the minds of a potential terrorist — the fear that if you are caught you will not escape the death penalty. Recent incidents have demonstrated that the terrorists need not bother much about that eventuality, even if the courts awarded the death sentence the terror convict can live on through the process of a clemency plea to the President, who can then take years to decide on the matter, allowing the convict to yet again appeal to the courts against the delay in deciding on his (or her) mercy petition.

Only a soft state can indulge in such farcical processes. The absence of harsh measures and quicker forms of justice is not the fallacy of the law in place, although even courts often take far too long to dispose of terror attack cases. It is a result of the complete absence of a strong political will — a will that should be guided more by the larger good of the country and less by parochial considerations of religion and diplomacy. Yet, it is the latter that we have seen more and more of. We are a nation in which even the killers of a former Prime Minister (Rajiv Gandhi) have managed to escape the noose for years, where the prime convict in a terror attack on Parliament — no less — continues to play hide and seek despite being given the death sentence by the court. It will surprise no one if, eventually, the 26/11 Mumbai attack convict Ajmal Kasab too gets off the hook for a decade or more or even forever.

Where does the common man look to for justice? Is there a forum for the victims of these incessant attacks that they can trust? Parliament, which supposedly represents the people of the country, has done away with strong Acts to tackle terrorism. POTA and TADA were abolished on the ground that they were too harsh and harmed the fundamental rights of the accused. Instead we now have a law that several experts have said is incapable of fighting terror. As if that was not enough, several politicians from the UPA have been for long gunning for the Armed Forces Special Powers Act that is crucial to battling terrorism, especially of the across-the-border variety. They want it to be scrapped, and they want us to believe that the existing laws to tackle theft, loot and arson are good enough for the hardened terrorists who blow up people and shoot indiscriminately at people. We are told that the local police force, that in the best of times struggles to nab even a petty criminal, is equipped to handle terrorists, engage them in long-drawn encounters and emerge victorious. So, who has the last laugh? The September 7 incident provides the answer.

But, let terror strike, again and yet again. How does it matter! Our politicians are now consumed with the feeling of forgiveness that is overflowing from their tender hearts. The Tamil Nadu Assembly passes a resolution seeking mercy for Rajiv Gandhi’s killers. Jammu & Kashmir Chief Minister Omar Abdullah blatantly wonders what the reaction would be if his State Assembly adopted a similar resolution for Parliament attack convict Afzal Guru. Quick to pick the hint, a Kashmir legislator decides to present the resolution in the House. Forgiveness is in the air.

So is reconciliation. Several members of the intelligentsia, who are far removed from the harsh ground realities, have begun to press for an end to the blood spill, to come together, forgive and forget. But will violence end by forgiving the terrorists, by giving them life when they brought death to hundreds? Will the terrorists, whose lives get spared — when it should not — turn over into a new leaf in prison? The important issue is: Will all this forgiveness and reconciliation be at par with justice? Justice for the families of those whose dear ones were consumed by terror attacks can come when the guilty are punished. If our law says that that punishment is death, then death it should be. All sorts of criminals are put to death in what the courts find as the ‘rarest of rare cases’; why should the terrorists be allowed to make a mockery of law? In any case, if our law-makers have problems with the death row, they should amend the law and abolish the death penalty.

Of course, terror strikes happen for a variety of reasons, including the lack of quality intelligence that could prevent the tragedy or the absence of adequate measures taken on the basis of specific intelligence inputs. But these are technicalities that can be fixed by tweaking or overhauling the system. This is a continuing process that countries like the US and Israel that have been hit in the past the most by terror attacks have engaged in. But they have also struck ruthlessly at their attackers, risking even the ire of the world community. Unfortunately, we have not, and that has further emboldened the attackers.

Not just that, we do not have the courage to even diplomatically counter the offensive. So, we continue to engage Pakistan even after it repeatedly rubbishes the tomes of evidence that we have provided on the 26/11 Mumbai terror attack and refuses to act decisively against individuals and institutions that openly spew venom against India from its soil. We are ever eager to offer the US, whose economy is in a crisis, our huge markets even as Washington, DC continues to offer financial aid and military ware to Islamabad, much of which we know will get directed against us. What prevents us from using the leverage of our economy to push the US into trimming or even cutting off aid to Pakistan, or to stop talking to Islamabad until it meets our core concerns? Our softness as a nation.

In the last three years, there have been three major terrorist attacks in the country — two in Delhi and one in Mumbai. They all have some Pakistani linkage. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh says terrorism will be effectively dealt with. We have heard that before. None of his or his Government’s actions has so far indicated any real resolve to do that. Before long, some senior member of his party will get into the act and say that the recent attack was planned by the Right-wing fundamentalists, even as investigators grapple with different sorts of evidence. But the Prime Minister will not have the courage to tick him off, because that party leader could be enjoying the confidence of 10, Janpath.
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Sunday, September 4, 2011

Happiness is on wings, grief lingers long


Human relationships are strange. The stronger they get the more fragile they become. Then they snap, leaving behind a trail of emotional distraught. Authors and psychologists have been for ages trying to understand the mysteries of the phenomenon, and expressing it in their ways. The general understanding is that the more complex a relationship the deeper are the fault lines. But even relatively simpler ones, such as those of friendship – even if they are very close they carry fewer burdens as compared to love affairs – are prone to break-ups. The immediate consequences are no less disastrous, and the one who suffers the most is the person who has invested emotionally the most in that relationship.

The American poet, Ella Wheeler Wilcox, who wrote through the second half of the 19th century and early 20th century, and became universally popular through her lines, “Laugh and the world laughs with you/Weep, and you weep alone”, hit the nail on the head when she pointed out that, as humans we tend to hurt people who like us the most. She reflected:

There's one sad truth in life I've found
While journeying east and west -
The only folks we really wound
Are those we love the best.
We flatter those we scarcely know,
We please the fleeting guest,
And deal full many a thoughtless blow
To those who love us best.

The Internet is full of advice on how to manage relationship disasters (just as it tells us the ways to cultivate a relationship). The ‘rational approach’, the Net educates us, should be to categorize the broken bond. Was it a toxic relationship that deserved to end? Or was it worthwhile to sustain? Social pundits tell us that, whatever the nature a break can often be refreshing to the heart and soul. At the very least, it provides an occasion to the players to re-assess the alliance objectively. It could, they point out, lead to the re-establishment of the ties or a more elaborate distancing. Robert Brault is a popular name on the Net who offers nuggets of encouragement on the subject. He philosophizes:

Sometimes two people need to step apart
and make a space between
that each might see the other anew,
in a glance across a room
or silhouetted against the moon.

If we ignore the romanticism in the poetry, it is possible to see the wisdom in the suggestion. However, emotions cannot be clinically controlled. How natural it would be for two people, until very recently close friends, to encounter each other as strangers in a room? Can one indulge in an objective assessment of the other after having provided that ‘space’, in such an unreal situation? Had this to be the way of the world, relationships would be without emotions, dry and robotic. The desire to seek space is but a lame explanation for the break-up, because any sort of meaningful human relationship inherently creates an individual space for each partner, while at the same time construing a common ground that binds two people.

On a recent television talk show hosted by Simi Garewal, well known film star Deepika Padukone spoke of the anguish she went through following her break-up. Her observations made more sense than the reams of advice experts provide, often at a price. Analyzing the reason (s) that led to the turmoil, she admitted to rather too easily getting emotionally attached to people. That fault, she said, contributed in a large way to her psychological disarray soon after the split. But it was the other remark that she made, that she gave “100 per cent” to the relationship, which was the at the core of her grief. People who remain frivolous in relationships – even though they claim to be serious – are the least affected. Those who give that 100 per cent, end up as the foolish ones.

While Deepika has managed well, eventually overcoming the crisis, a study quoted on the Internet tells us that men are less-well equipped to cope with such trauma. According to the findings of a research team of sociologists from the Wake Forest University and the Florida State University, men draw inwards and drift into loneliness when hit by a failed relationship, while the affected women seek comfort in the company of friends and family.

Author Jan Yager in his book ‘When Friendship Turns Unfriendly’ dwells at length on the ‘negative’ and the ‘positive’ of the relationship. He writes, “Too little attention has been paid to the notion that negative friendships can wreak havoc. Another reason (for writing the book) is to have a forum to explore the possible causes of finding yourself in such a relationship, and how to best rid yourself of a noxious friend”. A noxious friend is one who, among other things, does not respect you as a person, always tests your self-esteem and generally remains unconcerned with your insensitivities. Of course, it is quite possible that the person you consider as ‘noxious’, is not really so but a figment of your imagination. That problem can be taken care with better communication among the two.

However, the author is more caught up with bigger challenges, that of finding potentially dangerous friendships. He says, “Some potentially destructive or harmful friendships may be difficult to spot. That's because when a friendship is forming, during the "courtship" phase, your friend may be charming, polite, and completely appropriate. Once your friendship is well underway, a friend may change. The very act of becoming friends may send someone with intimacy problems into an emotional tailspin, changing those involved as well as their behaviour toward each other. As friends become closer and more intimate, expectations also may arise so that disappointments become more likely, and painful, than during the early stage of the evolving friendship.”
While it may appear fatalistic, the recognition that grief and hurt are inalienable in any relationship can help in coping with the crisis. The problem again is that such pain visits the person who is genuinely committed to a relationship and not the one who is in it for the sake of yet another exploration. A certain level of stoic, is thus, called for. Happiness is on wings, grief lingers long/Pain supports life, when all pleasure is gone.