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A government’s job is to govern, not represent the views of all people

This is regarding the point that some establishment intellectuals have been making these days: That since the NDA has garnered 38.5% of the vote (and the BJP 31%), its victory is somehow incomplete/illegitimate. Amish writes.

columns Updated: Jun 08, 2014 22:44 IST

I have a golden rule for my columns and interviews: I never speak or write on politics. There are many reasons for this. One among them is that I like to reflect upon topics before I write on them. Therefore, usually, by the time I arrive at an opinion on a political event, it is not topical anymore. But an issue has arisen in our political theatre that I have thought about in the past. Therefore, I decided to present my views on the subject.

This is regarding the point that some establishment intellectuals have been making these days: That since the NDA has garnered 38.5% of the vote (and the BJP 31%), its victory is somehow incomplete/illegitimate. We are told that 61.5% of Indians have rejected the NDA (and 69% have rejected the BJP) and, therefore, this is not a truly representative government. Is this criticism fair?

Let’s step back a bit. What does a government exist for? Is it to primarily represent the country, ie be a mini-embodiment of the diverse cultures, peoples and viewpoints of the nation? Or does it exist in order to govern?

The Greek philosopher Plato clearly believed that the purpose of a government was to govern; it was not to represent all the people of a society. In fact, he held democracy in disdain. The most superior form of government, for him, was theocracy — divine rule — which he postulated was impossible in practical terms. Plato’s preference was for aristocracy; a rule of philosopher-kings or as he called them, men-of-gold. These were supposed to be men who were systematically trained to be better than the people they led, so that they could guide the spiritual and material development of their country.

Ancient Indians also held that the primary task of a government was to govern and not represent its country’s diverse viewpoints. But they also felt that monarchs could not be allowed to exercise absolute power; which is why raj gurus and rajya sabhas existed in ancient India, in order to exert some measure of control on rulers. However, even these controls were not instituted with the intention of coercing the monarchs to ‘represent the views of the people’. They were put in place to ensure that the monarch followed raj dharma or royal duties.

There were ‘democracies’ in the ancient world, which did allow for the views of those other than the royalty to impinge on the government, eg the famous vajji sangha in India or the governments of ancient Athens. But even here, the so-called representation was not of the views of the common people, but of the elite. In ancient Athens, for example, slaves and women were not allowed to vote.

The high point of democracy has been the modern age. In democracies today, universal adult suffrage, where all adult citizens are allowed to vote, is, well, universal. But even today, practically all voting systems have been designed such that primacy is given to governance over representation of the various points of view of all the peoples of the country. And since governance is given precedence, almost all election systems have been designed such that higher voting patterns lead to a disproportionately higher share in the legislature or elected executive of the country. Why? Because stability is a prerequisite for governance. If one tries to create a government where every single viewpoint of the country is to be represented, then one is planning for paralysis and chaos.

Therefore, in the United States, you have the electoral college concept for presidential elections, where a voting majority is exaggerated into a much bigger electoral college majority (the US president is technically elected by the electoral college and not directly by the people; the people only elect the electoral college). This has led, in four cases, to presidents being elected despite a minority in direct voting percentage. And some of those presidents were very good.

In proportional voting, a favourite now of the Indian establishment intellectuals, normally there is a cut-off below which a party gets no seats in the legislature. In Germany, for example, the cut-off used to be 5% (Germany also has a direct election system for some seats and a recent court ruling has made some more changes in proportional representation but I will ignore that for now in the interest of simplicity). Had we followed a proportional voting system in India with a cut-off, all regional parties and independents would have got no seats as they all have a national voting percentage of less than 5%. Only the BJP and the Congress would have got seats in the Lok Sabha. The results of our election, under proportional representation with a cut-off, would roughly have been the same for the BJP/NDA, if not better. However, the regional parties would have been wiped out and their seats would have gone to the Congress.

The sum and substance is that every election system (be it the US electoral college, proportional representation or our own first-past-the-post) has been deliberately designed to aid stability and governance while also bringing in some adequate measure of representation of the views of the people.

So to all those complaining that, in the latest Indian election, a minority lead in voting percentage has been disproportionately converted into a majority in parliamentary seats: Well, yes, that is the way the system has been designed. That is the way that all electoral systems across the world have been designed. Because the purpose of any election system is not to have a mini-embodiment of the views of every single person in the country. The purpose of an election is to elect a government.

Of course, my views should not be construed as either supportive of or opposing any political formation. They’re meant to address the concerns of those who would seek to interpret the results in a certain narrow way. To them I say: Be mature, respect the people’s mandate. That is the essence of democracy.

Amish is the bestselling author of The Shiva Trilogy. Twitter: @amisht

The views expressed by the author are personal