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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 continued…