By Poojil Tiwari
In September last year, a 29 member all-party panel was constituted to explore alternative systems of elections that could be adopted in place of the prevailing “first-past-the-post” (FPTP) system. Eleven months later, the panel, headed by Deputy Leader of the opposition in the Rajya Sabha, Anand Sharma, submitted a six-page questionnaire to the Election Commission, expressing its “apprehensions” on how the FPTP may not be “the best-suited system” for elections in the country.
It was observed that the questionnaire has initiated the “first structured discussion on the issue”. In light of the ongoing debate about FPTP, we analyse the issues with FPTP, while exploring the feasibility of an option such as Proportional Representation in the country.
Problems with FPTP
Commonly followed in the United Kingdom and the erstwhile British colonies, the FPTP has long been criticised. In the depiction of voter trends, it has been called inaccurate. The concept for FPTP is that the candidate with the most number of votes in a constituency wins the elections. It is simple and enables parties to come into power with a majority.
However, there exists a mismatch of the popular vote share of the party, considering the number of seats. Consequently, despite a small share of the popular vote, MPs are often elected to power. Furthermore, FPTP unfairly taxes smaller parties, that may have a substantial vote share nation/ statewide but may not have concentrated voter banks in constituencies.
For instance, the panel headed by Anand Sharma cited the example of the 2017 UP elections in their questionnaire, where BJP won 312 seats with a 39 percent vote share, thus winning the elections with a clear majority. However, SP and BSP only managed to win 47 and 19 seats with a vote share of 22 and 21 percent respectively.
Understanding proportional representation
The idea most predominantly preferred over FPTP is proportional representation. During the drafting of the Constitution, various forms of proportional representation were considered. However, it was eventually dropped in favour of a more stable and relatively uncomplicated FPTP.
The idea behind proportional representation is simple: the number of seats won by a voting party/ candidate is proportionate to the number of votes received. Proportional representation primarily operates in two ways: the list system and the single transferable voting system.
Currently, the single transferable voting system is used to elect the President, the Vice President and the members of the Rajya Sabha and the legislative assemblies. Under the list system, the MPs would be chosen out of a list of candidates declared by the party beforehand. The number of MPs elected now depends upon the proportion of votes polled for the party.
Proportional representation in elections: As good as it sounds?
There are many arguments in favour of proportional representation. The primary argument is that it reduces the discrepancies between the votes polled and the seats won. By voting for the lesser of the two evils, tactical voting is also reduced. Consequently, small players do not usually get a chance.
However, proportional representation has its own demerits. Proportional representation makes elections party-centric as opposed to them being people-centric. Appeasing of party bosses becomes the primary focus when candidates are selected based on a proposed list. This is opposed to identification of the needs of the people.
An ancillary argument is that it takes away the concept of a regional or local candidate. This is done by establishing a common pool of candidates for all constituencies. However, these arguments remain exclusive to proportional representation and a democratic process can be used to navigate them. The problem with proportional representation remains that it creates spaces for further polarisation of identities.
India is a country of multiple identities. There exist huge cultural gaps across various demographics such as geographical location, religion, gender, socioeconomic status. Generally, political parties tend to focus on vote bank politics. This is contrary to the “target groups” focus to ensure a consistent vote share. Consequently, issue-based politics seems to be a far-fetched dream and implementation of proportional representation makes it becomes an unattainable illusion.
Furthermore, this system of elections significantly lowers the electoral threshold, thereby making coalition governments inevitable. Excluding the majority party of the FPTP, most other parties and independent candidates are likely to get a higher number of seats for their existing vote share. This further disincentivizes parties from picking up issues that are pertinent to people beyond their vote bank. It introduces new players into the political field whose motive is to sustain their vote bank, irrespective of the success of the government.
While FPTP may not be perfect, proportional representation raises serious threats to India’s democratic fundamental of unity in diversity. The question ultimately becomes one of tactical voting; between the two evils, which one should the country choose?
Featured Image Source: Visual Hunt
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