Indian democracy must be more representative
India’s philosophical underpinnings and demographic reality are at stark odds with one another. Such an imbalance creates an insurmountable gap between the ideal and the implementation of representative democracy
“Equality may be a fiction but nonetheless one must accept it as the governing principle,” wrote BR Ambedkar in a controversial speech he prepared but did not deliver at the 1936 Annual Conference of the Jat-Pat-Todak Mandal of Lahore. One hundred and twenty eight years after his birth, the reluctant architect of India’s modern constitution reminds us just how difficult it is to administer equality.
Representative democracy, a bastion of political equality, is bursting at the seams in India. The country’s population has more than tripled since the making of the Constitution, and citizens’ political representation at the national level has not kept pace. A Pew Research Center survey released last week found that 33% of Indians are not satisfied with the way democracy is working. The ratio of representation is abysmal: each parliamentarian today represents, on average, almost 2.5 million constituents.
Given India’s massive population, high representation ratios seem par for the course. But when seen in comparative context, the problem becomes untenable. India’s representation ratio is over five times that of the world’s most populous country (China), and over three times that of the third most populous country (the United States). Even when compared to other populous Commonwealth nations, which share a common origin of institutions, India’s representation ratio is the worst by some distance. Pakistan, Nigeria, and Bangladesh, among others, all fare considerably better. India’s philosophical underpinnings and demographic reality are at stark odds with one another.
Such an imbalance creates an insurmountable gap between the ideal and the implementation of representative democracy. We name two of the ways in which it does so. First, there is insufficient legislative capacity to meet demand. Too few parliamentarians are responsible for protecting the welfare of too many citizens. With mounting pressure for politicians to attend to their constituents’ grievances, there is little time left for MPs to fulfil their core constitutional obligation: lawmaking. The 16th Lok Sabha’s track record is evidence of a malfunctioning legislature. According to the PRS Legislative Research, this Lok Sabha sat for 331 days, against a 468-day average for all previous full-term Lok Sabhas. Increasing the number of parliamentarians may reduce the burden of constituency engagements, enabling MPs to focus on more productive lawmaking. Improving legislative capacity cannot, in and of itself, repair India’s broken system of checks and balances, but it can certainly provide some relief to time-constrained politicians.
Second, the competition for a static number of seats has bloated campaign financing. As MP candidates cater to ballooning constituencies, they pour more money into capturing their electorate’s votes. Wealth has become a principal marker of a candidate’s electability. Senior Fellow at the Centre for Policy Research, Neelanjan Sircar, notes that the median wealth of competitive MP candidates has risen sevenfold between 2004 and 2014. With rising barriers to entry enclosing the political arena, candidates have sought to circumvent the Election Commission of India’s stringent campaign finance limitations by turning to unaccounted funds.
The next delimitation exercise is due in 2026. It is crucial to have legitimate solutions on the table by then. Many scholars and practitioners have suggested interventions that are sensitive to the Indian political economy, of which we discuss two.
The first, as Alistair McMillan notes, is to expand the Lok Sabha through constitutional amendment. The three previous delimitation exercises of 1952, 1963 and 1973 have successfully done this. Thus, there is precedent to creating new seats in Parliament. McMillan proposes increasing the size to 647 Members in the Lok Sabha stating that “no state would lose out in any redistribution”. Moreover, the Lok Sabha at 647 would still be smaller than the British House of Commons, with 650 legislators to represent a population of 63 million. While this certainly calls for a more rigorous debate around the numbers, it is an option that legislators should consider.
The second is to empower the Rajya Sabha in line with the US Senate, which enables equal representation across states. In India, the Rajya Sabha was designed to provide an outlet for regional representation through indirect election but was given no teeth. The principle of representative democracy legitimates a reimagination of the Rajya Sabha, such that it can be a conduit for the voice of the people as much as the Lok Sabha. This would allow India to facilitate regional representation in the Union more effectively than is done today. It can draw on the experiences of countries like the United States, Brazil, South Africa, Spain, and Russia that have bicameral legislatures designed to create avenues for both proportional and regional representation.
To Ambedkar, “The soul of Democracy is the doctrine of one man, one value” .From his writings, we can infer that the democratic apparatus is not always able to translate this principle into action. Still, as more countries fall prey to democratic backsliding, India has a responsibility to preserve the integrity of its institutions. On the eve of a decisive general election, India should commit to shaping agile structures of government that remain both sensitive to a shifting demographic reality and true to the constitutional pact of a democratic republic.
Reva Abrol is an analyst and Prakhar Misra is an associate at IDFC Institute, a think/do tank, Mumbai
The views expressed are personal