As India goes towards her 17th general election, it is time we asked ourselves a hard question: What are we voting in? If we were being honest, the answer would be: We don’t know. We are probably voting in someone who represents himself or herself, rather than a set of values or a shared vision.
For decades now, the Indian people have watched with a kind of gobsmacked fascination the absolute disintegration of political values. A candidate contests elections with the support of one party, uses up its resources and the precious time invested in his campaign by senior leaders affiliated to that party, then once he wins the election, dumps his organisation and goes over to a rival devoted to a totally different set of values.
When I was growing up, the phrase “Aaya Ram, Gaya Ram” was already part of the Hindi idiom. It gained currency after 1967, when an MLA called Gaya Lal switched parties three times over 15 days. This gentleman quit the Indian National Congress to join the United Front, then went back to Congress, and a few hours later, went back to the United Front.
We have come a long way. The words “suitcase” and “resort” are more closely identified with election season than a summer vacation. The buying and selling of the people’s mandate no longer causes outrage. Voters wring their hands. Punters take bets.
The Constitution was amended in 1985 and a so-called “anti-defection” law created. However, governments continue to be formed depending on the pliability of winning candidates. There’s been talk of a new anti-defection law, but it has come under fire for preventing elected representatives from voting in Parliament against the party line. In other words, our MPs and MLAs might be forced to vote against their conscience.
At this point in time, the less said about political conscience, the better. In recent years, Arunachal Pradesh Chief Minister Pema Khandu, along with 43 MLAs, defected from the Congress to join the People’s Party of Arunachal. Then, within a few months, he went over to the Bharatiya Janata Party. There were similar defections in Goa, Manipur, Uttarakhand, Nagaland and Telangana.
Matters have deteriorated to the point that the BJP actually argued before the Supreme Court that the anti-defection law did not apply to the MLAs elected in Karnataka in 2018 because they hadn’t been sworn in yet. The Supreme Court called it out as an “open invitation to horse-trading”, but there’s little doubt in the minds of ordinary voters that “resort politics” is now mainstream. We have seen videos, we have heard tapes and we read news reports about bribes to the tune of hundreds of crores.
Words like “party” are slowly being leached of meaning. What does it mean to vote for a party when the person you vote for ceases to represent that party? Post-election alliances also appear to be based on who can be persuaded to surrender a slice of power. There is little pretence about smaller parties wanting to ally with others based on common values. In such a climate, those who speak of values — their own or those of the voters — elicit mockery, while those who can successfully dismantle the public mandate are admired.
It doesn’t have to be like this. All over the world, voters participate in elections because they take for granted that their candidates represent a set of values. Some nations go a step further and account for the fact that individual leaders have their own following, regardless of party affiliation. Perhaps it is time India also tweaked our system so that our vote does not get highjacked so easily.
In Australia, there is a system of preferential voting. Each candidate is given a “preference” or ranked by the voter. If implemented in India, it would mean that you could decide that your first choice is for the Bahujan Samaj Party, second choice is an independent candidate, third choice the Samajwadi Party, and so on.
There is another system called the Single Transferable Vote. Here, too, voters rank candidates in order of preference. Supposing your first choice of candidate is A, and the second choice is B. Now imagine that to win a seat, a candidate has to win 5,00,000 votes. As votes are counted, imagine that A has got more than 5,00,000 votes as a first choice. From that point on, all votes that named A as first choice will be transferred to the second choice, who could also win a seat.
Now, supposing our first choice, A, gets the lowest number of votes. Your vote will not be wasted. Instead, it will be transferred to B, who still stands a chance.
It is not inconceivable that we should change our system. New Zealand used to have a first-past-the-post system — whoever gets the most votes wins the seat. However, around 1908, they moved to a second-ballot system wherein a candidate must get at least 50 per cent of the vote to win a seat, else another election would be held. Since 1996, it has become a Mixed Member Proportional system. Every voter has two votes — you vote for a candidate, and also for a party. This way, if a party has 30 per cent of the national vote, it gets 30 per cent of the seats in Parliament. Individual candidates win seats too, regardless of party affiliation and this makes for a more honest polity. If individuals wish to distance themselves from their party, they don’t betray the voter’s mandate because they didn’t win a seat only because of the party.
For a culturally and demographically complex nation like India, more electoral nuance is a good thing. Fractured mandates may also be a good thing. It is in everybody’s interest that politicians and parties cannot take their seats for granted, especially since many of them have demonstrated that our mandate means little more than “suitcases” and offshore accounts.
I, for one, am in favour of a re-ordering of the system. At the very least, it would involve re-educating voters and perhaps that process would force us to think harder about our democracy.
Zaidi is a writer and poet