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Lok Sabha election 2019: A new challenge for federalism

Indian states have grown at drastically at different rates over the past 40 years, and seat allocation has not kept pace — leading to different sets of objections from the southern and northern states.

lok sabha elections Updated: Mar 13, 2019 07:47 IST
Milan Vaishnav and Jamie Hintson
Milan Vaishnav and Jamie Hintson
If federalism is the glue that has kept the world’s largest democracy together, there are growing signs that this adhesive is becoming unstuck. (Sonu Mehta/HT PHOTO)

For over seven decades, India’s system of democratic federalism has been credited with holding the country together amid unparalleled ethnic, linguistic, and religious diversity. India’s post-independence constitution granted its sub-national states significant powers over many aspects of day-to-day governance. Shortly thereafter, in the mid-1950s, Indian states were reorganised on linguistic grounds, a farsighted political decision that defused many potential battles around linguistic identity.

If federalism is the glue that has kept the world’s largest democracy together, there are growing signs that this adhesive is becoming unstuck. The primary culprit is not relations between the Centre and the states, but disparities among the states themselves. For instance, the wealth gap between India’s states has exploded in recent decades; research by Praveen Chakravarty and Vivek Dehejia demonstrated that, as of 2017, India’s three richest states were three times richer than its three poorest states. Population growth has also been highly skewed.

Thanks to falling fertility rates, India’s southern population is growing much more slowly than the northern population. Yet, a large share of the central government’s allocation of resources to the states (via the apolitical Finance Commission) is still based on population figures from the outdated 1971 Census. Differences in wealth and demography fuel interstate migration, largely from poorer and younger northern states to more prosperous southern and western states. Collectively, these inequalities raise new questions about India’s federal design and create a potentially explosive wedge between the country’s leading and laggard regions.

In this general election season, another troubling dimension of interstate inequality is bubbling beneath the surface: political representation. The chronic unwillingness of India’s political class to reallocate parliamentary seats in light of the country’s changing demographics has led to severe and entrenched malapportionment. As long as India’s politicians defer tough decisions on the legislative seats India’s states deserve, the current crisis of representation will only deepen.

Kicking the Can Down the Road

Proportional representation is enshrined in India’s constitution, which governs the allocation of seats in the Lok Sabha. Article 81 requires that each state receive seats in proportion to its population and allocate those seats to constituencies of roughly equal size. Proportional representation is not mandated for India’s Union Territories (UTs) — Parliament may decide their allotment of seats — or for states with a population below six million (as of the Thirty-First Amendment in 1973).

The constitution also regulates the total number of seats in the Lok Sabha. Under current law, the Lok Sabha has a maximum sanctioned strength of 552, although its current strength sits at 545 members.

To divide these seats proportionally, Article 82 of the constitution calls for the reallocation of seats after every census based on updated population figures. However, the Forty-Second Amendment enacted in 1976—during the Emergency rule by then prime minister Indira Gandhi—suspended the revision of seats until after the 2001 census.

In 2002, Parliament delayed reallocation even further, passing the Eighty-Fourth Amendment and extending this freeze until the next decennial census after 2026 (which will take place in 2031). However, the Eighty-Seventh Amendment (2003) did allow for redistricting within states based on 2001 population figures, although the total number of seats assigned to each state could not be altered. By 2031, the population figures used to allot parliamentary seats to each state will be six decades old.

This unwillingness to acknowledge India’s changing demographics has come at a cost.

Indian states have grown at drastically different rates over the past forty years, a product of disparate—albeit slowly converging—fertility rates (see chart 1). States with slow population growth, such as the southern states of Kerala and Tamil Nadu, argue that they should not be punished for curbing population growth more effectively than states with ballooning populations, such as the northern states of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. The northern states, in turn, argue that they have been short-changed; after all, the notion of “one person, one vote” is a central tenet of democratic representation.

Unable to resolve this dispute, successive generations of Indian politicians have chosen instead to delay reallocation rather than reckon with its explosive implications for parliamentary representation.

How Bad Is India’s Malapportionment?

The ultimate outcome of this persistent deferral is severely unequal representation. Malapportionment was already serious by 2001, when politicians moved to delay seat readjustment for a second time. Writing then, political scientist Alistair McMillan documented just how drastic over- and underrepresentation had become.

According to the 2001 Census, for instance, McMillan calculated that Tamil Nadu should have had seven fewer Lok Sabha seats, while Uttar Pradesh should have gained seven more.

Updating McMillan’s calculations to incorporate 2011 Census figures reveals even starker disparities.

Following McMillan, we calculate each state’s number of seats using the Webster method, a standard formula proven to provide an unbiased allocation of seats.Then, using the 2001 and 2011 Censuses, we project state population figures out to 2026 and repeat this calculation, illustrating the severity of malapportionment by the time the freeze on reapportionment expires. Table 1 displays the revised seat counts for each state. Because the state of Andhra Pradesh was bifurcated (into Andhra Pradesh and Telangana) in 2014, the analysis aggregates these states.

These updated numbers cause sizable shifts in political power. Four north Indian states (Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, and Uttar Pradesh) would collectively gain 22 seats, while four southern states (Andhra Pradesh, Kerala, Telangana, and Tamil Nadu) would lose 17 seats. Based on our population projections, these trends will only intensify as time goes on. In 2026, for instance, Bihar and Uttar Pradesh alone stand to gain 21 seats while Kerala and Tamil Nadu would forfeit as many as 16.

Reimagining the 2014 Elections

Unsurprisingly, reapportionment carries profound implications for political parties. Parties with bases concentrated in fast-growing northern states—like the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)—would gain power at the expense of southern regional heavyweights. To illustrate, we simulate the impacts of reapportioning seats on the basis of the 2011 Census on the 2014 Lok Sabha election results. Assuming that the proportion of seats in each state won by each party does not change, the BJP’s majority would have increased from 282 to 299, largely at the expense of southern regional parties (Chart 2).

Misrepresentation in Theory and Practice

While these dramatic shifts in seats held by each state suggest acute misrepresentation, the extent of the problem greatly depends on the chosen unit of analysis.

Total population does not perfectly correlate with the number of electors or voters in a constituency.

Northern states tend to have low levels of both voter registration—in part due to a disproportionate share of young residents below the voting age of 18—and voter turnout. Thus, states that are overrepresented (or underrepresented) due to their total population may not be in terms of registered or actual voters.

For example, while MPs in Uttar Pradesh cater to nearly 3 million residents on average, compared to 1.8 million in Tamil Nadu, the number of registered voters per constituency is similar (chart 3). Incredibly, slightly more voters per constituency went to the polls in Tamil Nadu than in Uttar Pradesh in 2014. This finding suggests that while citizens might “count less” in states with parliamentary underrepresentation, the same is not necessarily true of actual voters.

Possible Solutions

Barring another constitution amendment, parliamentary seats will not be reallocated until after the 2031 Census. However, this fact should not delay a comprehensive federal discussion of the various dimensions of interstate inequality, including the tricky issue of representation. What solutions might policymakers envision?

The first strategy is simply committing to a reallocation after 2031 and resisting the urge to kick the can down the road once more. This is the “pulling off the Band-Aid” strategy: the longer the process drags on, the more pain will eventually be felt by changes in the balance of political power.

Another solution, which has also been proposed by McMillan, is to increase the number of seats in the Lok Sabha. This has two clear advantages. First, increasing the number of MPs would address the ballooning size
of constituencies, which hamstrings MPs’ responsiveness to constituents’ needs. At present, Indian MPs
represent an average of 2.5 million citizens—over three times the number for any other democratic country (see chart 4).

Expanding the size of the house may also be more politically feasible than reapportioning the current number of seats, as it provides job security for MPs in states otherwise set to lose seats. McMillan proposes that the Lok Sabha be expanded just large enough that the most overrepresented state does not lose any seats under reapportionment.

Using the Webster method and 2001 Census figures, he calculates that the Lok Sabha would have to expand from 545 to 668 members for this to occur. We find that the Lok Sabha would have to swell to 718, based on 2011 figures, and to 848, based on 2026 projections-- far exceeding the maximum strength of any Lower House or unicameral body in a democratic country today. Under this proposal, Uttar Pradesh would have a whopping 143 seats, while Kerala’s parliamentary delegation of 20 would remain unchanged (see chart 5).

A third solution is reforming the composition of the Rajya Sabha.

This “Council of States” is intended to offer a venue for states to advocate their interests. However, a 2003 amendment broke the link between a representative and his or her state by eliminating an earlier “domicile requirement,” which had mandated MPs be residents of the state they represent. In the absence of any residency requirement, political parties can nominate virtually any candidate to a vacant Rajya Sabha seat without regard for the candidate’s geographic home.

Fixing the domicile issue will only go so far, however.

Even before the 2003 legislative change, Rajya Sabha MPs got around the requirement by obtaining a token local address.

An additional change worth considering is ending the indirect election of Rajya Sabha members and instituting a process of direct election.

An even more radical measure would involve moving toward an equal number of seats for each state, as in the US Senate. Transforming the upper house into a real venue for debate of states’ interests could potentially soften the opposition to a reallocation of seats in the Lower House.

Irrespective of the route pursued, the debate on India’s representational future should not be delayed any further. A strong argument can be made that any such conversation should be part and parcel of a larger negotiated federal compact between the Centre and the states that would address issues of taxes, fiscal allocations, migration, and other concerns of interstate inequality. To miss this opportunity would risk inflicting further damage to India’s federal design — a vital, albeit imperfect, element of India’s democratic longevity.

Milan Vaishnav (@MilanV) and Jamie Hintson are with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. This article is part of the ‘India Elects 2019’ series, a collaboration between Carnegie and the Hindustan Times

First Published: Mar 13, 2019 07:44 IST