Our Unrepresentative 'Representative Democracy'

An Indian woman casts her vote at a polling station it a village near Sawai Madhopur, in the Indian state of Rajasthan, Thursday, April 24, 2014. With 814 million eligible voters, India is voting in phases over six weeks. Results are expected May 16. (AP Photo /Manish Swarup)

Making a case for Proportional Representation mechanism as opposed to the incumbent First-Past-the-Post electoral system followed in India, Indrajit Roy argues that institution of PR mechanisms for candidate-selection is likely to reduce several of the injustices associated with the majoritarianism promoted by the FPTP mechanism. Furthermore, if bolstered by a scheme of substantive representation for members of underprivileged communities, such as Dalits, Adivasis, Extremely Backward Classes and the Ajlaf and Arzal Muslims, PR mechanisms would inaugurate a new era of ‘transformational politics’ for millions of Indians. One way to do this, as envisaged by Dr Bhim Rao Ambedkar, could be to introduce the provision of exclusive electorates for specific ‘caste clusters’ within the PR system. This would entail the creation of multi-member constituencies with differentiated electoral rolls based on the ‘caste cluster’ with which voters identify.

As we justifiably celebrate the ‘world’s largest democracy’ going to the polls, we should perhaps spare a thought for its representativeness. Governments in India have only occasionally commanded the confidence of the majority of the electorate. For instance, despite 60 per cent of the Indian population not wanting it, the United Progressive Alliance formed the government in 2009. In the past, its chief adversary the National Democratic Alliance also formed the government under similar circumstances. As of today, less than 20 per cent (95 of 543 MPs) of the members of Indian’s national Parliament, the apex institution of our democracy, can claim to possess the confidence of the majority of voters in their respective constituencies. Nearly three-quarters of all MPs (402 of 543) were elected by 30-50 per cent of the voters in their constituencies. Can we really call ourselves a representative democracy when the overwhelming majority of our legislators are not elected by a majority of the voters in their constituencies?

These unjust outcomes make a mockery of democratic ideals of popular sovereignty. They are the result of the First Past the Post (FPTP) mechanism of candidate selection that we follow in India today. The principle of ‘winner takes all’ entailed in this mechanism means that all candidates have to do to win elections is to skillfully manage their constituencies and ensure that their rivals do not secure as many votes as they do. This often involves buying out rival candidates and/or ensuring that dummy candidates are nurtured in order to ‘eat into’ the votes of serious contenders. Most political parties engage in such tactics although it is probable that the more established and wealthy the party is, the better it can manipulate voters and manage constituencies.

We need to initiate a conversation about candidate selection mechanisms that are more representative of the diversity of political opinion in this country. In particular, we urgently need to discuss mechanisms through which members of exploited and oppressed classes and communities are able to wield substantive political influence. Political mechanisms that enable members of these classes and communities to translate their imagination of social justice into reality are the need of the hour, and Indians should not shy away from discussing these frankly.

Proportional Representation: Long overdue?

In an important 2006 paper titled ‘Electoral Institutions and the Politics of Coalitions: Why Some Democracies Redistribute More than Others’ and published in the American Political Science Review, political scientists Torben Iversen and David Soskice attribute the redistributive policy orientation of the European continental democracies to their early institutionalisation of proportional representation mechanisms. These mechanisms — and there are several — conduced to political coalitions between the middle and working classes, enabling redistribution from the rich to the poor. The PR mechanism enabled different social groups to coalesce around their own political organisations, without the possibilities of these organisations being split and rendered ineffective. No matter how small or weak, they found representation in the political institutions. By contrast, the FPTP mechanisms of candidate selection in the Anglo-American democracies conduced to political coalitions between the upper and middle classes, stymying the prospects of any redistribution from the rich to the poor. These findings have considerable implications for us in India. They help us understand why no significant redistributions in favor of the poor have occurred, excepting half-hearted implementation of social protection interventions and affirmative action schemes.

Exclusion vs Coalition

Under the present FPTP mechanism, the legislative majorities commanded by victorious political parties result from skilful management of seats rather than from their genuine representativeness of the respective constituencies. This enables elected representatives to omit the demands of those who are known (or thought) to have voted for their rivals without being held accountable for these omissions. This results in the arbitrary implementation of social protection schemes and affirmative action policies. A great deal of influence resides in the person of the sole candidate declared elected. Such a candidate is likely to not enjoy the confidence of the majority of the voters in a given constituency. Beneficiaries of schemes and policies are selected by politicians with a view to furthering patron-client relationships, which prevents either political parties or politicians from addressing the underlying causes of poverty.

On the other hand, PR mechanisms entail multi-member constituencies. There is no one winner. Rather, political parties (and affiliated politicians) share the polity in accordance with the votes polled. What matters is political parties’ responsibility to their constituents, rather than their ability to manipulate electors. Political parties cannot remain content with mobilising a plurality in their favor, but must strive to increase their vote share. To do this, they cannot limit their actions to making patently unsustainable promises to their constituents, but actually keep as many of those promises as they possibly can. They are more likely to try and build political coalitions that encompass as wide sections of their respective constituencies as possible. Given the sheer numbers of the poor in India, any widely-encompassing coalition inevitably includes them within their ambit. Such coalitions are then more likely to ensure that tax-funded redistributive programs are affected so as to benefit the entire population, including those who may be unable to pay taxes for a variety of reasons.

FPTP mechanisms are inherently politician-centric, while PR mechanisms tend to be more party-centric. For this reason, politicians contesting under FPTP mechanisms emphasise their individual ability to ‘get things done’ for this or that group. They find it more efficient to ‘target’ goods to supporters and potential supporters, since all they really need to do is to secure a simple majority. Instead of strengthening citizens’ access to public goods, they are content with making discretionary allocations from their budgets that are directed towards ‘key’ constituencies as gifts and munificence. Our notorious Member of Parliament Local Area Development Scheme (MPLADS) and Member of Legislative Assembly Constituency Development Fuund (MLACDF) are a case in point. The incentives under PR systems are different: political parties try to maximise the coverage of public goods so as to enhance their support among the population. The larger the support they can muster, the greater their control over the constituency. While this makes the allocation of discretionary largesse difficult (given the large number of competing constituents), it does incentivise politicians and their parties to ensure that public goods are available to citizens without additional costs.

Majoritarianism vs. Social Justice

The FPTP mechanism belongs to the family of candidate-selection mechanisms that are correctly called ‘majoritarian’. This mechanism enables politicians to completely ignore the opinions and interests of scattered political minorities. PR mechanisms, on the other hand, are more representative of these political minorities and allow them a voice in the legislative institutions. In a society such as ours, where class divisions are based on variables such as caste, ethnicity and religion, PR mechanisms are more likely to produce a more representative polity than the FPTP mechanism. However, PR mechanisms by themselves cannot be expected to mitigate against the centuries of injustice that members of the marginalised communities have undergone. They would need to be bolstered by safeguards for social minorities, particularly Dalits, Adivasis, so-called ‘lower’ Shudras (categorised as Extremely Backward Class in several States) and marginalised communities from among the Muslims.

These safeguards would have to be more substantive than the existing policy of ‘reservation’ of seats for members of Dalit and Adivasi communities. While the ‘reservation’ of seats enables members of these communities to be elected to legislative institutions, it does not necessarily safeguard the interests of Dalits and Adivasis as such. The reason for this lies again in the electoral rules governing the ‘reservation’. Dalit and Adivasi representatives of ‘reserved’ constituencies are elected by all the registered voters of those constituencies rather than by Dalits and Adivasis alone. This rule of electing candidates for ‘reserved’ constituencies was agreed upon under the terms of the Poona Pact between Ambedkar and Gandhi in 1932. Against Ambedkar’s well-reasoned proposal of separate constituencies for Dalits, wherein Dalits would vote exclusively for Dalits in elections, Gandhi refused to countenance any move that would entail a political separation between Dalits and Hindus. With a deadlock confronting him, Ambedkar had no choice but to accept the unjust rules pertaining to electing candidates for ‘reserved’ constituencies.

Even where Dalits are numerically preponderant, they have been unable to derive substantial benefits from this system on account of the extraordinary social disabilities they continue to face. Dalit and Adivasi candidates amenable to the privileged classes among privileged communities are induced to contest elections against those Dalits who are better likely to be representative of the poorer classes from both privileged caste and Dalit backgrounds. Such sponsored candidates are able to ‘win’ easily given the minimal requirements of the FPTP mechanism described above. Not for nothing did Kanshi Ram, the founder of the Bahujan Samaj Party, deride this rule as one that bred stooges (chamchas) of the privileged communities rather than ensuring substantive representation for Dalits.

The institution of PR mechanisms for candidate-selection is likely to reduce several of the injustices associated with the majoritarianism promoted by the FPTP mechanism. Furthermore, if bolstered by a scheme of substantive representation for members of underprivileged communities, such as Dalits, Adivasis, Extremely Backward Classes and the Ajlaf and Arzal Muslims, PR mechanisms would inaugurate a new era of ‘transformational politics’ for millions of Indians. One way to do this, as envisaged by Dr Bhim Rao Ambedkar, could be to introduce the provision of exclusive electorates for specific ‘caste clusters’ within the PR system. This would entail the creation of multi-member constituencies with differentiated electoral rolls based on the ‘caste cluster’ with which voters identify. Provisions for mandatory representation of members of marginalised communities would ensure that they are not penalised for their numerical weakness. The PR mechanism would provide the overarching framework within which the representative character of the electoral procedure would be nurtured and strengthened. This dual innovation — PR mechanism coupled with a scheme of differentiated electorates for members of underprivileged communities— will take us one step closer to bringing about the fair and just polity that the founders of our republic envisaged.

The unrepresentative character of India’s parliamentary democracy is and will continue to be a major institutional impediment to any ‘transformational politics’. The diversity of political opinion in India, especially those of the underprivileged, exploited and oppressed classes and communities, will remain ignored and suppressed. If our claim of being the world’s largest democracy has to have substance, we need to interrogate the complacence with which most politicians, activists and academics have accepted and internalised this unrepresentative character. It has resulted in the near-complete dominance of the polity by two political parties which between them do not command even the majority of votes of the electorate. The fratricidal jousts between these two parties pass for ideological debates. What remains ignored is the growing levels of inequality and the continued denial of social justice to millions of our people.

These elections are an opportunity for India’s political parties to make a difference by reaffirming their commitment to the principle of justice enshrined in the preamble of our Constitution. It is an opportunity for them to move beyond sterile posturing over secularism and development and strive to link these substantively with the demands of social justice. The New India is an India of social equality, social dignity and social justice. Any talk of ‘transformational politics’ without respecting these imaginations, aspirations and assertions is akin to the noise emanating from empty vessels.

This article is closed for comments.
Please Email The Hindu Centre