PEOPLE POWER: In the current electoral system the percentage of votes polled by a political party has little bearing on the number of seats it wins
At a recent conference on electoral reforms in Bangalore political parties got a tongue lashing by four former chief election commissioners of India. The most vocal of them, J.M. Lyngdoh, declared that the current electoral system of first past the post (FPTP) is a non-inclusive one, where the majority of the voting public goes unrepresented.
“Take the case of the Assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh in 2012. The Samajwadi Party won 55 per cent of the seats whereas it won only 29 per cent of the total vote. Is there any respect under this system for the 71 per cent people who voted against the party,” asks Lyngdoh.
This is precisely why the campaign for a system of proportional representation (PR) is gaining ground. And at the seminar organised by the Campaign for Electoral Reforms in India (CERI) in Bangalore, electoral reforms activists, political leaders and representatives of people’s movements from across the country spoke about the need to change from the present system of FPTP to the PR system.
“I would define proportional representation as a system where the number of seats a party secures is equally proportional to the number of votes the party gets. This ensures that all the groups that have a major stake in the electoral process are suitably represented,” says M.C. Raj, founder, CERI.
Of course, adopting this system would require a complete overhaul of the Representation of the People Act, 1951. The act deals with the conduct of elections at various levels under the Indian Constitution. “The current law is completely tilted towards the FPTP system. We are asking for numerous amendments to the law after a nationwide debate on it,” says Raj.
According to CERI, 89 countries around the world have adopted some form of the PR system. “It is only around 60 countries, many of them former colonies of the British, that are sticking to the FPTP system. It’s time we did away with this non-representative form of election,” says Raj.
If implemented, this is how the PR system would work.
The Election Commission will ask each recognised political party to present its list of candidates selected through intra-party elections. The EC would then scrutinise and publish the list. All the political parties will be asked to declare their alliances before the elections and there will be no scope for post-electoral tie-ups.
The lists prepared by the political parties would also have the name of the constituency of the nominated candidate. Voters would be able to vote for a party of their choice. Those who support the system argue that in the end, voters would be voting for the party’s ideology, manifesto and the candidate.
Once the elections take place, the Election Commission would tabulate the votes polled in favour of the political parties and allot seats according to the proportion of the votes polled by them. For example, if five recognised parties in a particular state have won 30, 21, 19, 16, 14 per cent of votes respectively, they will be allotted seats accordingly, either in the state Assembly or Parliament, as the case may be.
“Bigger parties will be forced to negotiate with smaller parties, leading to more democratisation of the political process and pre-poll tie-ups, meaning there will be less scope for arm-twisting and horse-trading after the election,” says Lyngdoh, who supports PR.
Some parties argue that this is the best form of representation. “Almost 75 per cent of the votes are wasted in each election. This is the only way to stop the haemorrhage of votes,” says D. Raja, general secretary, Communist Party of India (CPI).
The CPI and the CPM have been the strongest supporters of the PR system. Raja asserts that his party’s influence on the electorate is not reflected in the number of seats it wins. “That is the case with most smaller parties. They may be strong at the grassroots level, but because of money and muscle power, bigger parties gain during elections. PR presents a level playing field,” says Raja.
Raja accuses bigger parties such as the Congress and the BJP of showing a lukewarm response to changing over to the PR system. “I would say that most political parties have been paying only lip services to this form of electoral system,” says R. Ramakrishna, national convenor, election cell, BJP.
But smaller parties have always shown more interest. In 1999 the DMK, Shiromani Akali Dal and the Communist parties had asked the Law Commission of India to recommend a 50 per cent reservation of seats in Parliament and Assemblies for the PR system.
In fact, the Law Commission had recommended that the strength of the Lok Sabha and the state Assemblies be increased by 25 per cent, and that the increased strength filled on the basis of the list system. The latter asks voters to list candidates standing for election in order of preference.
Nepal is one country which has a mix of both FPTP and PR. While candidates get elected under the FPTP system, parties also stand to gain seats based on the percentage of votes they get in the elections.
However, one of the main arguments against the PR system is that it would sound the death knell for very small parties and independent candidates since it lays emphasises on only a few political parties. It would also mean the end of constituency-level electoral battles.
Raj disagrees with this view. “On the contrary, a multicultural and multi-party country like India is particularly in need of the PR system. This is the only way to hear the voice of those who go unrepresented,” says Raj.
The other criticism against the PR system is that it will encourage casteist and communal voting patterns. Some parties focused on a caste or a community could garner a fair percentage of votes of that particular caste or community and end up winning seats under the PR system.
Not so, say the proponents of PR. “Casteism and communalism are more rampant under the FPTP system as everybody is trying to secure vote banks. But under the PR system where there will be pre-poll alliances, the space for communal and casteist politics will be very less,” says S.K. Biswas, president, All India Progressive Forum, Bangalore.
As a first step towards a more inclusive form of electoral process, activists want the seats in Parliament and all state legislatures to be doubled. They suggest that half the members should be elected on the basis of proportional representation, and half elected from each constituency through FPTP, on condition that the candidate should secure 50 per cent + 1 votes.
Is this too confusing for the electorate? Some experts certainly think so. “The PR system is too complicated for the general electorate. I am not sure if Indians are ready for such an experiment,” says Ramakrishna.
Activists like Raj, who have held intense parleys with political parties, are hopeful that the discussion on PR would gain momentum in the coming months and years. “We are asking the political parties to think about the country before thinking about themselves. Passing a law endorsing the PR system is one way of doing that,” says Raj.
But it remains to be seen if the government will take any definite step in this regard and proportional representation will see the light of day anytime soon.