Let me begin with an apology. Today I’m asking for your serious attention because the problem I want to discuss is important whilst the solution is neither simple nor straightforward. You need to concentrate to follow and understand. But I can promise you won’t regret the effort I’m asking you to make.
The Varun Gandhi episode has dramatised how hate-speech has become intrinsic to our politics and deeply damaging to our polity. Alas, it’s not the only example nor is religion the only basis of hate-speech. We have equally hateful appeals to caste, language or religion.
J.M. Lyngdoh — James Michael, as Narendra Modi popularised him — perhaps our best known former Chief Election Commissioner, believes all hate-speeches are attempts to, first, split the voters and, second, corral behind the speaker a particular segment which he or she believes is sufficient to propel him or her to power. In other words, it’s a deliberate strategy to create vote-banks.
The worst part is that our present system of elections seems not only to permit hate-speeches but actually encourages them. This is because, in a multi-party set up, it allows candidates to be elected with just 20 or 30 per cent of the total vote. Consequently narrow sectarian or caste-based appeals can deliver vote-banks of sufficient size to secure victory.
So how do we put an end to hate-speeches? How can we eliminate them from our politics? Simply enforcing the law — even expeditiously — is not sufficient because whilst that may penalise hate-speakers it won’t necessarily deter them. Like suicide-bombers, those hell-bent on demonising others to gain advantage won’t always be stopped by fear of the consequences. Often, they welcome them.
The answer, according to Mr Lyngdoh — and this is the bit I want you to concentrate on — is to make hate-speeches counterproductive. Render them self-defeating and they will stop. And the way to do this is to change our electoral system.
Mr Lyngdoh suggests two important changes. First, amend the law so that a candidate can only be deemed elected if he or she secures over 50 per cent of the vote. Inevitably, this will entail a two-stage, French-style election — a preliminary multi-candidate round and, then, a final run-off between the top two contenders. By design the winner will have over 50 per cent of the vote.
This would immediately place a premium on the widest possible appeal to ensure the widest support. Ipso facto, narrow appeals — based on religion, caste or language — would become counterproductive and self-defeating.
The second change is to find a way of representing small parties who could get squeezed out by this system of voting. Mr Lyngdoh proposes that only half the Lok Sabha be chosen by direct balloting. The other half would be chosen from a party list on the basis of proportional representation. So, if a party secures 1 per cent of the vote nationwide it would receive 1 per cent of the remaining seats. The Germans have a similar split between direct and party-list based elections.
As far as I can tell, the biggest objection to the Lyngdoh proposals is that they could double the voting, which means they would double the time, the expense and the hassle. With 700 million voters elections could stretch for three months.
Of course, you could reduce the length by addressing the security concerns that prolong elections, although that’s easier said than done. But, ultimately, a three-month election may well be more tolerable than the persistent fear of proliferating hate-speeches and the way they tear our country apart.
The Lyngdoh proposals pull together ideas earlier suggested by the Law Commission and the Venkatachaliah Committee to Review the Constitution. Each backed one half of what Mr Lyngdoh suggests. He is the only person to have put them together.
I believe the Lyngdoh proposals tackle the problem of hate-speech head-on and effectively. Of course, there may be other ways of doing so and some could be better. Now’s the time to discuss and debate all of them.
Mr Lyngdoh has set an important ball rolling.