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Making every vote count: Time for a change in manner we elect our MPs, MLAs?

All arrangements for democratic representation come with some inadequacies. The debate should be on seeking a balance between the need for legislator-constituency connect and proportional representation

Written by R Parasuram |
Updated: May 3, 2019 9:56:35 am
What goes in favour of a constituency wise winner is it allows voters to choose their representative out of those on offer on the ballot. (Illustration by Suvajit Dey)

In ‘Half MPs, half votes’ (IE, April 20) Nalini Singh makes a compelling case for switching over from the first-past-the-post system (FPPS) to an alternative, which instead rewards a political party with seats in proportion to the number of total votes polled by it. A large number of people share the view that what was at the time of Independence copied from a largely two-party model for elections to the House of Commons has proved increasingly inadequate for capturing the true character of the electorate’s verdict in the multi-party context of Indian democracy.

Singh illustrates her point by analysing the voter turnout percentages of various parties in the 2014 elections. The BJP, the winner in 2014, was rewarded, as indeed were other such winners of the past, with seats much larger than it would have secured in an alternative system. This happened at the cost of parties such as the BSP polling 2.03 crore and the DMK polling 96 lakh votes, respectively. Neither won a single seat in the Lok Sabha. Here, I would like to draw attention to some other aspects, which need to be examined and also try and show how rewarding a party with seats proportionate to the votes it captures is not really the solution it might appear to be in the first instance.

First, what goes in favour of a constituency-wise winner is that it allows voters to choose their representative out of those on offer on the ballot. It presupposes a connect between a representative and her constituents. Already much compromised, even this connect will not remain if a party were allowed to “pre-announce a list of potential members” as suggested by Nalini Singh. Ideally, in a representative democracy, it should be the local unit of a party that selects its candidate for a constituency. However, in the absence of any compelling provisions in the People’s Representation Act, political parties in India have given a complete go-by to inner party democracy. What actually happens is that the returning officer puts on the ballot the name of the person whom a party authorises him to. So, barring independents, the voter actually chooses one of the many candidates put up by the party headquarters in Delhi or the state capitals, so to speak.

But, at least as of now, some local considerations do go into the decision a political party makes in deciding who its candidate from a particular constituency shall be. At times these are tactical, as when taking into account the caste group a candidate belongs to, or strategic as in when a leader decides to offer himself as a candidate in a constituency far and away from his traditional or home base to send down a message to the electorate, a la Varanasi or Wayanad. Then there are others who go seeking safe havens. Any list-system, unhindered by guarantees for local representation, would only make leaders even more powerful than now. There is every likelihood of a party leadership wanting to pack its list of likely winners top down as per its own preferences rather than as per local aspirations and considerations. A completely unintended consequence arising from a switchover to seats-in-proportion-to-the-votes-polled arrangement, if you like. Look at what has happened in another much-admired piece of legislation, the anti-defection law. Despite it having helped put an end to the Aya Ram-Gaya Ram era, it has led to party leaderships growing stronger and powerful at the expense of an ordinary member’s right to debate and dissent.

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Second, the federal character of the Indian Constitution cannot be ignored. A proportionate system of determining the number of seats in the Lok Sabha would in effect repeat what is already in place for the Rajya Sabha, albeit through indirect elections. Every political party has the opportunity of securing for itself seats in the upper house, in proportion to the members it has got in the state assembly. Its also worth noting that if we were to repeat the seats-in-proportion-to-the-votes-polled arrangement for the Vidhan Sabhas as well, inadequacies cited in the previous paragraph shall kick-in in equal measure. As for Parliament, we will have MPs, sitting in either house, without having faced the electorate directly. Here again it will be the leadership of political parties who stand to gain. Theirs will be the only recognisable faces campaigning for votes; not a very healthy prospect for a country as large and diverse as ours!

All alternative arrangements for representation in a democracy shall come with some inherent inadequacies. The debate, therefore, should ideally be on how to seek a balance. Three possible options can be examined. The first, and in my view the most balanced, is a mix of directly elected representatives with a given number of seats secured on the basis of percentage votes polled by a political party. This arrangement shall not entirely take away the representative-constituent connect. It will also respect people’s choice of a particular political party, an attribute to capture ideological and social considerations. One moot point, which will beg consideration, is whether to count the percentage of votes for a party nationally or state-wise. Both will throw up totally different outcomes.

The second option is for allowing a run-off between the top two candidates, in case the first round winner polls less than 50 per cent of votes polled. This will, however, add to both the already long period of actual polling and to costs incurred for holding the elections.

A third option is to go for preferential transferable votes, with voters marking their second and third and subsequent choice from amongst the list of candidates contesting from a particular constituency. This again shall entail a total re-haul of the election procedures and technology in place, including the present generation of EVMs and VVPATs and the required support infrastructure.

Most importantly, what needs to be factored into the debate is that the first-past- the-post system evolved presupposing a two-party system and a measure of inner party democracy, with local units and their registered members guaranteed a role in selection of candidates. As both these are absent in the Indian context it remains to be seen if political parties, in power at the Centre and in the states at any given time, as direct beneficiaries of the latest outcomes from an election shall want to develop a consensus for any change in the manner we elect our MPs and MLAs.

— This article first appeared in the May 3, 2019 print edition under the title ‘Making Every Vote Count’

The writer is a former chief secretary, Madhya Pradesh and former state election commissioner of Madhya Pradesh

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