Neither Fair Nor Stable

One of the perils of being a journalist is that people think you know everything. I am now used to being asked for my views on how Uttar Pradesh will vote and how long the UPA government will last, writes Vir Sanghvi.
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Updated on Mar 27, 2007 05:28 AM IST
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One of the perils of being a journalist is that people think you know everything. I am now used to being asked for my views on how UP will vote, how long the UPA government will last, whether inflation will be controlled and if a Cabinet reshuffle is imminent.

In fact, as anybody who has been around journalists will tell you, we are usually the most ignorant persons in the room. We have no real access to any special information and, most times, our judgments are wrong.

But because we make our living spinning tales, we are good at pretending otherwise. Years ago, when some misguided person first made me an editor, I resolved never to suffer from that dreaded affliction called ‘Editoritis’. Those of you who know our breed will recognise the condition. Its symptoms includes an inability to say “I don’t know” to any question we are asked and a tendency to hold forth at parties with opinions and anecdotes.

But, over the last few weeks, even as I have resisted Editoritis and told people the truth about the UP election — which is “I have no idea what will happen and anyone who says he does is a fool or a liar” — I have wondered about the state of our electoral system.

The only thing any of us can say about UP with any degree of certainty is this: no party will get an overall majority.

That, in itself, is not particularly surprising. But in most electoral systems, a hung Parliament should allow us to draw certain conclusions. For instance, we thought it probable that no party would get an overall majority at the last parliamentary election. But we knew who the BJP’s allies and likely coalition partners were. Similarly, we knew that if the Congress crossed a certain number, it could count on the support of the Left and some regional parties.

But in the case of UP, nobody knows anything. Even if Mulayam Singh Yadav’s Samajwadi Party (SP) does emerge as the single-largest party, that by itself is no guarantee that it will be able to form a government.

Who will Mulayam align with? Given the things Amar Singh and he have been saying about the Congress, it is unlikely that they will ask Rahul Gandhi for support. Nor can the SP go with the BSP given the state of relations between the two parties. The logical alliance would be with the SP’s old pals, the BJP, but neither party can really legitimise this relationship. The BJP would find it difficult to explain to its cadres why it is supporting the man who opened fire on kar sevaks. And Mulayam’s image as the champion of Muslims would be forever dented.

That leaves us with only two real options: another kind of unprincipled alliance or a large-scale breaking of all par-ties thanks to liberal infusions of cash (which is how governments tend to be formed in UP these days).

Neither will be the democratic outcome that the framers of our Constitution had intended.

All of which got me thinking: isn’t there something seriously wrong with our electoral system if it can guarantee neither stability nor fairness?

Students of electoral politics will tell you that the first-past-the-post system has many flaws. It mitigates against parties that have a widespread following and favours those whose support is narrowly concentrated. For instance, regional parties who get lots of votes in a small number of seats do extremely well while those who get many votes spread over many constituencies win fewer seats.

We borrowed our system from Britain where the first-past-the-post principle has seriously damaged the Liberal Party which has support throughout Britain but does not have enough concentrated votes to win in too many individual constituencies. The traditional British defence of the system is that though it may be unfair, it at least guarantees stability: Labour or the Conservatives usually win a majority.

But if you look at India’s experience with the first-past-the-post system, the reality is that it does not even guarantee stability. No party has won a parliamentary majority for nearly two decades (since 1989). All the system does is to throw up hung Parliament after hung Parliament. Parties based on ideology which have widespread support are doomed. Those that are based on regionalism and caste do extremely well because their votes are concentrated in specific constituencies.

And eventually, when the time comes to form coalition governments, it is the regionalists and the casteists who call the shots because they have the numbers. UP is just one example of how logic and ideology play no role in government formation. But this principle holds true of central governments as well. Whether it is the UPA or the NDA, it is the regionalists and the casteists who wield the real power.

In the early 1990s, when the political system fragmented and hung Parliaments became the norm, commentators and editorialists told us not to worry about this phenomenon because it would lead to more democracy — smaller parties would get a greater say in governance.

I think the time has now come to admit that this view is arrant nonsense. The collapse of the majority-governments and the growth of coalitions of convenience has not advanced the cause of democracy one bit. Instead, it has promoted casteism, regionalism and communalism. Never before in the history of independent India have educated people been more turned off by the state of our political system than today.

So what can be done?
The first-past-the-post method is, by no means, the only electoral system available to a democracy. In much of Europe, they prefer elections by proportional representation (PR). PR has many variations but one common method is this: political parties provide lists of candidates in order of preference (say 300 candidates per party).

Voters are asked to vote for parties, and depending on the number of votes polled, each party gets to have a proportion of its candidates elected. A party with 40 per cent of the vote gets 40 per cent of its candidates into Parliament. One with 20 per cent only gets 20 per cent of its candidates elected, and so on. Parties with under 10 per cent of the vote get nothing.

The advantage of the system is that it is more genuinely representative and that it accurately captures the mood of the nation. Small parties with concentrated support no longer have an unfair advantage. Because a party must win a minimum of 10 per cent of the vote to get any candi-dates into Parliament, regional parties would have to strike pre-poll alliances with others and contest under a common symbol. There will be no room for horse-trading once Parliament convenes because the smaller parties will already have declared their alliances.

Of course there are dis-advantages. Independents would disappear — but then, they are a dying breed anyway. The relationship between an MP and his constituency would end. New parties would find it harder to break in.

Do the advantages outweigh the disadvantages? It’s not clear that they do. But that’s not my point. My concern is that even though our political system is in decay and the first-past-the-post method has failed today’s India, none of us bothers to look for alternative electoral systems.

This particular form of PR may not be the solution we are looking for. Perhaps another variation will work better. Or perhaps we need something entirely different — a US-style Presidential system, for instance.

My point is more basic: let’s admit that we have a problem and let’s look at the alternatives. Unless we have an informed national debate on the subject, we will never find a way out of this mess.

So, if you are as puzzled as I am by the complexities of the UP elections and as convinced that there has to be a better way, then let’s ask for a national debate.

I’m not saying we’ll find the right answer at once. But, if we don’t start looking now, we’ll never find it at all.

And if any suggestion that it’s time to consider junking this electoral system and finding an alternative that’s more suited to today’s India sounds like yet another case of Editoritis, of my lecturing you on what to do next, then what can I say? Except this: sorry, but somebody has to start this debate!

My thanks to Dorab Sopariwala for making me conscious of the need for electoral reform.


    Why hide the papers? Why keep the conspiracy theories related to Netaji Subhas Bose’s death alive? And why deny India the truth about the death of one of its great freedom fighters?

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