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Book Review

A Case for Proportional Representation in India

Shaji K.

M C Raj, Electoral Systems – Proportional Representation for India, Green Ink, Bangalore, 2013

Dr. J.M. Lyngdoh, former Chief Election Commissioner of India comments from experience that most Indians have a closed mind when it comes to Proportional Representation (PR) and hopes this book will make us rethink about FPTP system which to him is the cause of misgovernance and rot in the country. Kare Vollan (Norway) agrees with Dr. Lyngdoh when he says that parliamentarians hate to change the system which brings them to power. Vollan says that mindsets need to change and as a foreigner viewing India’s current electoral system he finds First Past The Post (FPTP) failing when it comes to inclusiveness and affirmative action. PR he feels is a system that promulgates diversity without being unnecessarily divisive.

In this book Raj sets for himself an ambitious task, namely, ‘to trace the trajectory of power and people through different epochs of the emergence of postmodern democracy’ in the first part, then moves on to give us an overview of electoral systems that prevail in many countries in the second part and finally in the third part, outlining how Proportional Representation, the most suitable system of representation for contemporary India, can be implemented.

Raj begins with early communities, popularly called indigenous communities, where ownership or distribution of material and spiritual values was communitarian and not the allocation of entitlements to individuals, which is the rule in modern societies. Direct democracy was possible in those communities. Raj reasons that the transition to representative democracy and to the other forms of governance, which occupied the stage at various periods in human progress was due to the expansion of population. Territorial expansion may also have been another cause. This resulted in people who at one time made their own decisions becoming objects of decisions made by others. In Raj’s words, a hitherto unknown political paradigm, ‘power as dominance’ emerged. Monarchy and Feudalism encouraged this. To counter this oppression became a pressing need and ‘power as resistance’ emerged. This led to enlightenment in the Western world and to the collapse of monarchy and feudalism. New capitalist classes arose and the rights of the individual to accumulate, hold and bequeath became sacrosanct. Systems of government emerged which helped the interests of modern capital leading to colonization, the nation state and finally to globalization.

Democracy, Raj warns, has been flexible in playing into the hands of those who want to make use of it the way they wish. Numerous examples are before us to show how democracy is subverted to become the most widely accepted form of governance in most nations states, and is realized through some form of representation.

Raj traces development of democracy in India to the rise of the national movement to oppose the British rule but remains skeptical about the movement’s aims and origins. His thinking is in the line of what Dr. J.M. Lyngdoh comments in the introduction that ‘…Indian National Movement was one of the dominant communities that substituted itself for the British while leaving the repressive colonial structure intact. In FPTP they found an electoral system that could preserve their dominance over the majority’. Raj mentions that India transformed itself into a democracy according to a model developed in the West and a design handed over by the British. India’s background being monarchic and feudal it did not have a democratic model shaped by its history to which it could look to for guidance even though we talk of direct democracy in ancient times comprising the Sabha and Samithi. This alien model of democracy that modern India adopted suited the dominant class-caste combine but never served the purpose of inclusiveness that is required in a multicultural, multiethnic society. Reservations given to Scheduled Caste/Scheduled Tribes only created the illusion of inclusion. It was a mechanism of co-option, which never gave real power to the oppressed classes. That representative democracy in modern India will fail to be inclusive of different cultures, ethnic groups and minorities was realized by two Constituent Assembly members, Kazi Syed Karimuddin and Mahboob Ali Baig Bahadur who demanded Proportional Representation in the new Republic. These two could not get any support, not even from the Constitution’s Drafting Committee Chairman.

Raj’s assessment of the failure of India’s democracy to guarantee genuine and inclusive representation to its minorities and oppressed sections leads him to conclude that part of the responsibility, for this lies in the flaws of the electoral system adopted by the Republic’s founding fathers. As this writer and many others believe Indians tend to look at Proportional Representation (PR) through the prism of First Past The Post (FPTP). This leads to confusion and missing the wood for the trees. Unless we throw our FPTP baggage out and look at PR afresh we cannot have a proper understanding of PR. The success of Raj’s book lies in leading us to this position.

Raj rests his case for a shift to PR on the contemporary political situation in India where discontent bordering on deep chaos and anarchy knocks at our door. Governments both at the Centre and the State are unable to understand the cause of this problem nor are they able to formulate a solution because they do not represent the will of all sections of society and the views and grievances of the unrepresented sections do not get reflected in their decision making process. For in FPTP, you can get elected by winning a minority of votes and the attention of governments gets limited to solving the problems of that constituency, which elected them. The age of single party governments is over at the Centre and in many States and in the emerging new situation of coalitions FPTP is an unscientific way to elect people’s representatives. Internal democracy is now a thing of the past with most political parties in India where dynastic succession holds sway. As political parties become more autocratic, the more distant they are from responding to the needs of the people.

Several countries have radically reformed their electoral system drawing on experience while we hesitate. United Kingdom has adopted alternative systems at all levels except for Parliament and local councils. New Zealand shifted to mixed-member proportional system in 1993. Japan, Italy, Venezuela…. The list is long. Even next door Nepal! The presidential elections in our small island neighbor Maldives enters a second round, as in the first round no candidate could secure 50% of the votes.

The author recommends the Mixed Member Proportional Representation System with two votes per voter. His model is based on the system prevailing in Germany varied to India’s requirements. Even the National Law Commission report of 1999 had recommended something similar. The system is not Full PR but a mix of FPTP and PR with 30% seats in Parliament and Legislatures elected from single member constituencies and 70% from Party List (List PR). In case India has 500 seats in Lok Sabha, the country will be divided into 150 constituencies and voters will cast their votes for candidates of their choice as in FPTP. The one who gets more votes than others will be elected. The voters will also be allowed to cast another vote for a Party List. The remaining 350 seats will be filled through a Party List given to the Election Commission before a prescribed date. The number of persons who will enter the Lok Sabha on behalf of a particular party will depend on the percentage of votes the party secures in voting for the Party List. This means that 70% of parliamentary seats will be filled by voters casting their choice for a particular party and not for individual candidates. (This will also mean that all candidates entering the parliament on behalf of a party will be entering based on the percentage of votes that a party gains in the Party List votes). In India’s context Raj recommends a State List for each state rather than a National List which means the seats will be divided by the votes a party gets in each state rather than the country taken as a whole. The Party List will be a closed list in that parties do not have the right to change it after submission to the Election Commission. Raj also includes proposals to implement reservations for socially backward classes, minorities and women in the Party List so as to make the Lists inclusive of all sections. He also takes precautions to prevent fragmentation, a common accusation against PR, by proposing a threshold, namely the minimum percentage of votes a party must get to enter the legislative body. Threshold exists in all countries with PR. In India’s case the suggestion is for a threshold of 1% of the votes polled or 3 FPTP seats as the minimum criteria. It is also proposed to increase the number of seats in the Lok Sabha so that the 30% single member constituencies can be distributed according to the size and population of the country.

The prime motivation to write this book rises from the fact that India’s FPTP system has denied ‘effective’ representation to its socially backward, specially Dalit, classes and to its minorities. Other reasons can be found in the growing influence of money power and muscle power in elections and the lack of democracy in most political parties. But it can be said that increasing the size of the Lok Sabha and Vidhan Sabhas could make them unwieldy with members getting little time to discuss people’s issues and participate in debates. This writer has been told by a Rajya Sabha member how much easier it is to raise issues in that House as its size is much smaller compared to the Lok Sabha. He has heard a Lok Sabha member lament how impossible it is to be heard in a House of 540 members. Setting Threshold is again an issue, which will raise problems. Would not the Party List make MPs slaves to parties and deprive them of voicing their views fearlessly?

What remains relevant is the need felt among all sections of society in India that our electoral system is in need of radical reform to respond to challenges of changing times. However, our response has been lukewarm as we still tinker with it as is evident from the recent developments like the judgment that criminally convicted persons cannot contest elections and an Ordinance was brought to overcome it. India is an ancient civilization but we should remember we are an infant democracy taking its first steps. The infant is yet to stand on its feet. Raj is helping to correct its steps. Raj’s earnest efforts should be appreciated and supported.

(Published in Social Science in Perspective, Vol.5, No 3, July-September 2013. Quarterly Journal of C. Achutha Menon Study Centre & Library, Thiruvananthapuram)