While registered voter participation in elections has increased steadily, the actual functioning of legislatures has decreased almost as steadily, Vice President Hamid Ansari said Monday.
Ansari said that in spite of the First-Past-The-Post (FPTP) system possessing “the merit of preponderance of decisiveness over representativeness” according to the Supreme Court, it continued to be the subject of considerable discussion.
Delivering the 2015 Indira Gandhi Memorial Lecture of The Asiatic Society, the vice-president elaborated: “It has been argued that FPTP has not been able to uphold majoritarianism in a multiparty system, since the winning candidate gets only about 20-30 per cent of the votes. In fact, in the 2014 general election, only 117 of the 539 winning candidates secured 50 per cent or more of the votes cast. This, in the context of the overall national voting percentage of 66.4 per cent, makes evident the actual representativeness of the elected representative. One study shows that it was 31 per cent in 2014. This is accentuated by the unequal presence of weaker sections, especially women and minorities, in the power structure as reflected in elected bodies.”
He also said that in the 2014 general election, women constituted 11 per cent of the total elected Lok Sabha members, and while some religious minorities are well represented, the representation of others is noticeably deficient. Ansari also pointed out that while the registered voter participation in elections has steadily increased, the actual functioning of the legislatures has steadily decreased. “The Lok Sabha, in the 1952-1974 period, uniformly registered more than 100 sittings each year; the corresponding figure in the 2000-2015 period has never exceeded 85, and has in some years gone as low as 46 (The Rajya Sabha sittings in earlier years were at times fewer, but now the two Houses adjourn on the same dates). As a consequence, scrutiny of proposed legislation is in many cases perfunctory; also, less time is available for seeking the accountability of the executive through procedural devices like questions, debates and discussions,” he said.
Talking about the state legislatures, he said that the picture was worse with some state assemblies being convened in a pro forma exercise for less than 10 days every year.
“Thus, while public participation in the electoral exercise has noticeably improved, public satisfaction from the functioning of elected bodies is breeding cynicism with the democratic process itself. The imperative for a corrective is evident to reinforce public confidence in the ability of the system to deliver as intended,” he added.
Referring to the Centre-state relationship, he said that it had been suggested in the past that for proper and ideal Centre-state relations, there should be more powers for the states.
“To be more appropriate and precise, there should be autonomy for the states and federalism at the Centre. In recent years, and whenever a party in opposition to the ruling establishment in the Centre was in power in the state(s), somewhat similar views were articulated in Bihar, Gujarat, Kerala, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal. More specific demands for devolution of powers and for “autonomy” have also been made in Jammu & Kashmir and in Nagaland.
Ansari said though there had been a decline in poverty rates, certain impediments still remained. “It was assessed a few years back that poverty rates have declined substantially, going from 54.9 per cent of people in 1973-4 to 27.5 percent in 2004-05 as measured by the NSS. This has improved further in the past decade. Despite this, three challenges remain – Historical fault lines along gender, caste and religious boundaries that remain persistent; Global forces have widened the disparities between big cities and villages, and between more advanced states and those mired in economic doldrums. Despite some noteworthy achievements, public institutions in most parts of the country have failed in delivering basic services,” he said.