How to distil a mandate

We need to talk about what needs to change, and what doesn’t, about our electoral system

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. 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.
Written by Mini Kapoor | Published on:May 31, 2014 2:24 am

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?

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 …continued »

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