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.

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