With the BJP getting a simple majority in the Lok Sabha (282 of 543 seats) on 31 per cent of the national vote and the Congress’s 19.3 per cent share of the vote delivering just 44 seats, Verdict 2014 has reopened the debate on the representativeness of our first-past-the-post (FPTP) system, a debate it would be worth Indian democracy’s while to stay with a little longer.
India, of course, is not unused to tipping points, as it were, that deliver decisive mandates to a party or alliance far in excess of the percentage of votes won. In Kerala, for instance, a shift of barely a percentage point can dramatically alter the final result in assembly elections, thereby posing a nightmarish challenge to forecasters. Even in Lok Sabha elections, a swing of a few percentage points can throw the Congress-led UDF or the CPM-led LDF out of the picture, as the case may be. In 2009, the UDF took 16 out of the state’s 20 parliamentary seats on a 47.7 per cent vote share, leaving the LDF with 4 seats to claim as its own on a 41.9 per cent vote share. Five years earlier, however, the UDF had converted just one seat from 38.4 per cent of the vote, while the LDF snapped up 18 seats from 46.1 per cent of the vote. Don’t even bother to take out your calculator.
It was due to such numbers — typical in Westminster-style democracies, landslide victories without winning a majority of the votes cast — that the Liberal Democrats had sought electoral reform to bring in some form of proportional representation in Britain as part of the deal in forming a government with the Conservatives in 2010. As the third party in the fray, they had previously got slender returns on their substantial votes. The coalition government put to referendum the LibDems’ demand for the alternative vote (also referred to, in akin forms, as the single transferable vote or instant runoff voting).
In the current, if isolated, chatter about assessing representativeness, it is useful to revisit the architecture of that vote to see how plain vanilla proportional representation is not so easy to reconcile with the Westminster system centred on single-member constituencies. What was put to voters in a referendum in 2011 was the alternative vote. In an alternative vote system, a voter would rank candidates in order of preference. If a candidate gets more than half the votes cast, she wins. But if not, the candidate with the least number of votes is taken out of the fray, and her votes apportioned to those candidates ranked second. And so on, till you have a candidate with more than 50 per cent of votes. It sounds complicated, but operationally it would be quite simple to determine the winner. Indeed, the single transferable vote is used to determine the president of India (an indirect election) and the Australian legislature (a direct election).
Ultimately, the proposal was defeated. Of course, what a vast majority of British voters found unappealing need not be junked as a possibility elsewhere. But the arguments against the alternative vote were as persuasive, if not more, than those for. Follow a few hypothetical scenarios to their logical end and you could have the candidate ranked first on the largest number of ballots losing — provoking the question, what is the truest way to distil the mandate? Do you want a legislator who strikes the largest number of voters in her constituency as being the best alternative or one who’s the least unacceptable? It could come to that. Do you want a system that lends itself to being gamed in such a what-if way?
Given that any form of proportional representation will temper majorities, do you want the relative stability that comes with FPTP elections, so that even little swings can remove unpopular governments, or do you prefer coalitions formed after necessarily fractured mandates? Do you want a system that encourages candidates and parties to reach out to the largest number of people, and if so, which system may that be?
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These questions may have been tricky enough in a polity like Britain’s where a third party was trying to secure its turf, but in a complex, aspirational political landscape such as ours, they would beg many more follow-up questions about how the will of the people is determined while taking account of India’s plurality. In the United States, a pitch is sometimes made for multi-member constituencies as an option. Would that work for our Parliament?
What should go without saying is that outright proportional representation could be a non-starter. To take just one obstacle, within what boundaries would the vote be apportioned? If nationally, where does that leave regional parties, or parties operating in smaller clusters of constituencies? For example, does it make sense in a general election to compare the AIADMK’s 3.3 per cent of the national vote this time with the 2.1 per cent of the AAP, given their differing geographical aspirations?
But while scouting around for and weighing other models, let’s not fail to relook at FPTP and see how its potential for representativeness can be maximised. To its advocates, FPTP’s biggest virtue is the equality of each vote, so that the final result best approximates the voters’ will. While appraising different systems and possibly (advisedly) staying with FPTP, hopefully for reasons more enlightened than status-quoism, it’s important to consider how FPTP’s potential is limited once a legislator is sworn in as an MP or MLA in India. How the original parliamentary burden on a government to command the confidence of the House ensured the necessary representativeness of FPTP. How the anti-defection law, by committing an MP to her party’s whip, limits the exercise of the power vested in her by voters to do the right thing. How the responsibility for a government to mop up legislative support on a bill, among its own party or coalition MPs individually as well as those from the opposition unfettered by the anti-defection law’s extreme punishment for dissenters, makes FPTP’s representativeness meaningful. That’s a conversation we need to have.
The writer is a contributing editor for ‘The Indian Express’