We are in the midst of the world’s largest democratic exercise. Four thousand six hundred and seventeen candidates from over 300 political parties and Independents are competing for 543 parliamentary seats. Deciding their fate is an electorate of over 714 million. The administrative set-up is equally mind-boggling: 82,88,04 polling stations, 13,68,430 electronic voting machines and over 6.5 million personnel have been pressed into service for this month-long, five-phase polls. In addition, large numbers of security forces have been deployed to ensure free-and-fair elections.
We are justifiably proud of the fact that democracy is not only irreversible in India but is resilient against any effort to jettison it, like it was done in 1975. While the structure of parliamentary democracy continues to get strengthened, its content, however, needs to proceed apace.
Notice that both the Congress and the BJP appear to have adopted a trajectory of discourse during this election campaign that focuses on non-issues and inanities, as seen in the verbal spat between the BJP’s prime ministerial hopeful and the Congress leadership, including the Prime Minister, rather than focus on the problems being faced by the country and the people. This appears to suit the electoral strategies of both since on the issues facing the people, particularly in the wake of the economic recession and its impact on India, neither has anything substantial to offer as relief. Rather than placing before the people their proposals on how to tackle the situation, both have chosen to raise issues that are of little consequence to the future direction of the policies that either may implement if elected.
Apart from this, the large number of parties and contestants in the fray is making many draw conclusions of fragmentation of Indian democracy. On the contrary, the large number of regional parties and those representing various sectional interests is only the reflection of the vast diversity of India’s social reality in its polity. This must be seen as the process of maturation, not regression, of Indian democracy. This, however, is a nightmare for psephologists whose soundest prediction now seems to be that the aggregate shall always be the sum of the disaggregate.
This maturation of Indian democracy needs to be accompanied by structural changes to enrich the process further. Consider this: not once in our history, since the first general elections in 1952, has a government been formed that commanded over 50 per cent of the polled votes. All the governments at the Centre had more people voting against them than supporting them. The closest to reach the majority mark was the Rajiv Gandhi government in 1984 that polled 48.1 per cent with 415 seats. The lowest was the 1998, the NDA government whose alliance polled 36.2 per cent. In 2004, both the Congress and the BJP together polled only 40 per cent. If democracy is the rule of the majority, then that has not yet been established.
This merits a serious consideration of the proportional representation system where people vote for parties, which, in turn, send to Parliament the number of MPs on the basis of a prior-declared prioritised list, in proportion to the votes they receive. Any government that is formed on this basis by a majority of MPs will reflect the majority as expressed by the electorate. This issue was debated in the Constituent Assembly, but in its wisdom, it adopted the British ‘first past the post’ system. The 1928 Motilal Nehru Committee report had recommended the system of proportional representation as the best answer to reflect India’s diversity.
Often, the example of Italy’s governmental instability, as a result of proportional representation, is advanced as an argument against this system. But, remember, Italy has nevertheless continued to be in the G-7. In any case, what we are witnessing since 1996 is not very much different even without proportional representation. Apart from the fact that such a system would, to a large extent, minimise compulsions of choosing candidates on the basis of the social composition of the constituency and as also the role of muscle and money power, the question whether this would reflect India’s diversity in Parliament needs to be properly assessed. Every section of this diversity would naturally aspire to, indeed should, be represented in Parliament. In the Indian context, therefore, a combination of proportional representation with the present form may be ideal. This could be done, for instance, by clubbing two adjoining constituencies where people, with two votes, vote for individual candidates as well as the parties.
An additional advantage of this system would be the prescription of a minimum percentage of the national vote required for parties to send their representatives to Parliament according to the submitted list. They, of course, can be represented by individual candidates who may win. In a coalition era, this would be of immense relief to foil unreasonable pressures and demands.
As Indian democracy matures, such fine-tuning must be seriously undertaken by the government that follows these elections.
Sitaram Yechury is CPI(M) Politburo member and MP.