Elections form the cornerstone of a democracy. It is elections which decide the public mandate and authorize representatives to assume their position as legislators. It is therefore crucial for a democratic nation to have an electoral system that reflects the mandate of the public as comprehensively as it possibly can. The Indian electoral system, although transparent to a certain degree, is marred by theoretical inadequacy where the elections do not always reflect the mandate of the people because of the winner-takes-all system of elections. Moreover, a first-past-the-post system of elections where one citizen gets one vote is inadequate in expressing the different political opinions of 1.3 billion people.
The political views of the citizens of India, which form the bulwark of an electoral democracy seems to be stifled because of there being very few options that citizens have while actually choosing their MLAs and MPs. Although regional political variations exist, there is a well-defined pattern of the two largest political parties (or their coalition) forming the government at the centre election after election. This pattern can also be observed in a majority of states. Moreover, the first-past-the-post system disregards the runner-up even if he/she lost by one vote, thereby also disregarding a great chunk of the electorate. For example, in the 2014 General Elections, the National Democratic Alliance, led by the Bharatiya Janata Party, secured only 31.34% of the popular vote, yet the Bharatiya Janata Party comfortably formed a single-party government with confidence and collaboration with its allies. In the state elections of Tamil Nadu, it is almost predictable that either the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam or the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam will form the government in alternative elections. Given such shortcomings of the existing system, it is time to evaluate the feasibility a proportional system of elections in India.
The current electoral system in India is a staple for elections around the world as a large number of nations still use the first-past-the post system for elections at all levels of government. This system provides for the election of the candidate with the plurality of votes. In this system, the candidate deemed successful does not need to essentially have a majority of voters in favour i.e. more than 50% of votes, but, the candidate needs to have secured the most number of votes. The 2014 General Elections maybe illustrated again to explain this point – Rahul Gandhi contested from the Amethi Lok Sabha constituency and secured only 46.71% of the votes and was elected to parliament despite not securing more than 50% of the vote. He may have received the most number of votes but he did not secure a majority of votes i.e. more than 50% of the votes. The advantages of this system are that it is logistically feasible and quick as it removes the need for recounting or complex calculations. However, the disadvantages are greater in principle. The main aim of democracy is to provide people the platform to be heard, instead, the first-past-the post system ensures that a plurality of people sweep the elections and neither a majority (as it is very difficult to achieve a majority of votes) nor the runner-up are entitled to represent people who have voted for them. Although in turbulent political times of today, it cannot be expected that a single party can emerge victorious and form a majority government (with over 50% of the seats in a legislature); a single government with a plurality of votes may still form a single-party government, as was the case in the 2014 Indian General Elections.
Another problem with the system is that the proportion of people actually favouring a particular candidate is often disregarded. The runner-up of any election in this system may have very well lost by a margin of 0.1%, but, he/she is not entitled to represent his/her voters because the electoral constituencies can elect only one representative. This means that a loser of an election, even by a margin of one vote, is not entitled to be elected. The third problem is particularly relevant to India. Most often, the electorate of India would favour a party over a candidate or vice-versa. Instead of having two votes in a single election (which is permitted by proportional systems of election), a voter will be constrained to make a trade-off between the party and the candidate while casting the vote. For instance, New Zealand voters have the right to cast two votes in their elections – one for the candidate of their choice and one for the party that they think will form the next government. This ensures that the voice of the minority is not diluted by the actions of the majority. It also ensures that the two representatives elected from a single constituency will have to work in unison, thereby reducing political polarization. Having considered the deficiencies of the current system and the opportunities presented by the new system, the feasibility of a proportional representation system in India needs to be evaluated.
The proportional system of elections is gaining popularity among different nations in different regions. Also, the adoption of this electoral system cuts across developed and developing nations since developed countries like New Zealand and developing countries like Angola have adopted the proportional electoral system. The principal advantage of this system is that it provides a clear reflection of the people’s mandate by not restricting a constituency to one representative. The voter may also have the opportunity to choose a different party and a different representative at the same time, without having to compromise on the ‘quality’ of candidates elected. Also, the first runner-up in an election who has received a substantial proportion of votes (at least 25% of the votes) may also represent the constituency, thereby reducing the unchecked power of a single representative. For example, in a simple proportional system, if the number of seats attributed to a constituency is determined by the population of that constituency, the electors may choose the candidate that they favour but more than one candidate is elected depending on the percentage of total votes that they have secured. In a mixed proportional representation system, as followed in New Zealand, instead of more than one candidate being elected depending on the votes received, two candidates are elected where one has secured the most number of votes and the other represents the party that has secured the most number of votes.
A caveat must be added that all these criteria may not fit into an electoral system; likewise an electoral system may be tailored to the conditions and needs of a nation. It is not to say that India must incorporate all the relevant criteria while changing the electoral system, as it may not be feasible in the first place considering the friction that is all too well-known in Indian politics. Incumbent politicians will be averse to changing the system as it will dilute their power when their constituency is represented by more than one representative. Similarly, representatives who have previously won an election without securing a majority of votes would not be able to secure a unilateral victory under the new system. Moreover, the Constitution of India may have to be amended more than once to incorporate these changes and this requires greater political and popular will than that exists today. A proportional system of representation may also increase the frequency and duration of coalition governments, as one party most certainly will not command the legislature. Such a change will also engender a more decent and civil manner of conducting business relating to the statecraft in the parliament and state legislatures. Being cognizant of the fact that a radical change in the electoral system is not very feasible, a more practical solution may be offered. Instead of targeting state and national level politics in the first shot, proportional representation system may be introduced in the Gram Panchayat and the district levels by apportioning the seats based on the proportions of votes received instead of basing results on simple plurality. Party-politics in rural areas tend to be milder and the general public may be educated about this new system in a pragmatic manner as the electoral participation of citizens in rural area tends to be higher than their urban counterparts; for instance urban Bengaluru witnessed 57.33% of voter turnout while Bengaluru rural witnessed 78.25% of voter turnout in the 2018 Karnataka Legislative Assembly Elections. The learning from such an implementation at the primary levels may be accommodated and reflected at the national level, again, if it is politically feasible at the all-India level.
Following the assessment of the transition to a proportional representation system, it is increasingly evident that such a transition will be hard to come by, given the political polarization in our country today. However, the adoption of such measures in local governments may be feasible and even act as a precursor to changes in the distant future. However, politically and morally, the proportional system is a more comprehensive electoral system in a democracy because of the greater level of public participation that it engenders. The proportional system also ensures that the mandate of the public is not lopsided and skewed by majoritarian politics which tends to sideline minorities, but one where differing opinions may be accommodated into a cohesive system of representation at all levels of government. The proportional system may also subdue the polarization that is ever-present in Indian politics. However, the question of whether this equitable system will actually implemented in India will remain.
(2014, May 17). All India Results Status - Election Commission of India General Election to Lok Sabha Trends & Result 2014. WebCite. Retrieved from https://www.webcitation.org/6PfWDNtfY?url=http://eciresults.ap.nic.in/PartyWiseResult.htm
Constituency Wise All Candidates - Election Commission of India General Election to Lok Sabha Trends & Result 2014. WebCite. Retrieved from https://web.archive.org/web/20140517135253/http://eciresults.nic.in/ConstituencywiseS2437.htm?ac=37
(2018, May 15). Karnataka election highlights rural-urban divide: State witnesses highest voter turnout, but Bengaluru stays away. Firstpost. Retrieved from https://www.firstpost.com/politics/karnataka-election-highlights-rural-urban-divide-state-witnesses-highest-voter-turnout-but-bengaluru-stays-away-4468191.html
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