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Should India change its poll system?

A largely unpopular candidate may become an MP and a party on the backfoot may end up forming the government. This has been a feature of Indian democracy.

india Updated: Apr 30, 2014 11:13 IST
Prashant Jha
Prashant Jha
Hindustan Times

A largely unpopular candidate may become an MP and a party on the backfoot may end up forming the government. This has been a feature of Indian democracy.

India’s first past the post (FPTP) system requires a candidate to secure the highest number of votes, not necessarily the majority of votes. In 2009,for instance, 78% of the Lok Sabha MPs had less than 50% vote, and the Congress won less than 30% votes but won more than 200 seats.

Critics suggest that to make the Indian polity truly representative, it is time to move towards the proportional representation (PR) system where parties get seats according to their vote share. But is this the solution?

Take Nepal, where the Constituent Assembly has been elected through a mix of FPTP and PR methods. The CA has 601 members, 240 of them elected from constituencies and 335 through PR. Depending on their vote share, parties are allocated seats under PR. While there are no reserved seats in FPTP, parties have to provide representation to marginalised groups — indigenous peoples, women, Dalits — in PR lists.

Aditya Adhikari, author of a forthcoming book on Nepal’s Maoists, tells HT from Kathmandu that PR has made the CA the most inclusive house in the country’s history, but also deepened the polity’s fragmentation. “Those who come from PR are selected on the basis of their loyalty to senior party leaders. The PR system has thus reinforced patron-client relations within parties,” he says.

This is precisely why Menaka Guruswamy, a Supreme Court lawyer specialising in comparative constitution-making, believes FPTP is the best available system. “PR may take us away from the goal of making the system more representative. It whittles down the link between MPs and constituents, and a few party bosses will call the shots,” she says.

Germany seeks to retain the virtues of both systems. Siegfried Herzog, South Asia regional director of the Friedrich Naumann Foundation, says that his country has a mixed system, with half the MPs coming through constituencies and half through party lists.

“People have two votes, a constituency vote and a party list vote, and the overall number of seats for a party depends on their overall share of the party list vote. So if a party is entitled to 100 seats, and it has won 60 constituencies, it can fill in 40 from its lists,” he adds.

This system helps make it representative but prevents party bosses from becoming too powerful. It offers a direct link between elected members and constituents, and the party lists are put together at a party convention, in order of priority, and known to the voter. So a party is likely to choose the top 40 from its list unlike in Nepal.

How PR will affect smaller parties is not very clear. New outfits like Aam Aadmi Party have called for PR, as FPTP is believed to be inherently favourable for bigger parties with resources. But Guruswamy disagrees. “Bagging a small percentage of votes does not necessarily translate into a seat at the national-level.
FPTP has allowed the proliferation of political movements.”

While emphasising the need for reform, Jagdeep Chhokar of the Association for Democratic Reforms too believes that PR is not the only solution. “A simple modification, requiring a candidate to get at least 50% vote, can make the system more representative under FPTP even if it entails a second round of polling.”