Delimitation: South must not lose the plot

Delimitation will hold significant consequences for political and fiscal centralisation in India, as well as equity in distribution across North and South India. How should we grapple with these implications, and what can be done to attenuate the most negative consequences?
Last Updated : 04 November 2023, 23:41 IST
Last Updated : 04 November 2023, 23:41 IST

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Debates continue to swirl across India around the delimitation process, where seats in the Lok Sabha are to be reallocated based on the results of the next Census. Considering the rate of population growth since the last Census in 2011, it is predicted that the North Indian states will gain far more MPs and thereby, more political heft than the South. Yet, a simplistic analysis of seat losses and gains under delimitation, and arguments about its fairness in numerical terms, misses the point. In its totality, delimitation will hold significant consequences for political and fiscal centralisation in India, as well as equity in distribution across North and South India. How should we grapple with these implications, and what can be done to attenuate the most negative consequences?

Before discussing the details and intricacies of the proposed delimitation, it is useful to review the theoretical argument for conducting the process. Political scientists are typically quite concerned by “malapportionment” in parliament — that is, a legislative system that gives more weight to citizens of certain states over others.

For instance, in the US Senate, the assent of which is typically required for major legislation, each of the 50 states has two representatives. But the 25 smallest states in the US make up less than one-fifth of the country’s population and can effectively block any legislation, giving them disproportionate power. This is not just some academic exercise. 

Until 2022, the Democrats effectively had the same number of senators as the Republicans, but Democratic senators represented 56.5% of the country’s population — 13 percentage points more than the population represented by the same number of Republican parliamentarians in the US Senate.

Malapportionment has consequences for the fiscal position of states as well. Research in various countries, including Japan and the US  has consistently shown that a greater number of parliamentarians per capita is associated with more government benefits from the Centre. From this perspective, delimitation that maintains a consistent level of parliamentarians or legislators per capita is seen as the most equitable.

In India too, political scientist Rikhil Bhavnani has argued that a greater number of legislators per capita is related to economic development, but this relationship is largely contingent on those legislators being in the governing coalition.

The Indian case

But who can be in the governing coalition, and how does it impact fiscal support from the Centre for Indian states? In the US, the same parties (Republicans and Democrats) contest and win elections from every state, but India is far more culturally and politically diverse. South India, for instance, is characterised by a completely different set of parties (such as DMK, AIADMK, BRS and YSR Congress) as compared to the North, where the Congress and BJP still largely compete in head-to-head contests. In the Indian context, delimitation is not a simple case of empowering citizens, it also strengthens certain political parties over others.

In order to be precise about this argument, it is useful to look at some numbers. Milan Vaishnav and Jamie Hintson undertook an analysis of the numerical consequences of delimitation from the 2026 population projections. Recently, the government has stated that the number of Lok Sabha seats will increase in proportion to the overall population increase since 2011, which projects an increase in Lok Sabha seats from 543 to about 753. Using population projections for 2026 provided by Vaishnav and Hintson, and the target number of 753 overall seats, we can calculate the number of seats allotted to each state.

I estimate that the states of Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana and Kerala would go from their current 101 Lok Sabha seats to 107 seats (just a 6% increase) in the new larger Lok Sabha after delimitation. With Karnataka, the number of seats in these southern states is projected to rise from the current 129 to 143, an 11% rise. 

In the 2019 national election, the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) helmed by the BJP won just 5 of these 101 seats. In contrast, the largest gainers under delimitation would be the states of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan, which would go from their current 174 seats to 284 seats (a 63% increase) in the new larger Lok Sabha. The NDA won 156 of these 174 seats, an impressive strike rate of 90%, in the 2019 election. At these strike rates, the NDA would receive 255 seats just from these 4 states after delimitation — much of the way to the new majority mark of 377 seats.

Since 2014, we have seen extraordinary political and fiscal centralisation in India. And the BJP openly campaigns on a platform of ‘double engine sarkar’ in state elections — an explicit promise of political patronage and party bias in fiscal transfers from the Centre. The concerns around delimitation for the South are not just about losing a few parliamentarians. Rather, there is the very real possibility that the fact that the South has a different political culture — along with better development outcomes and lower fertility rates — than the North, will result in the systematic loss of fiscal support from the Centre.

Already we see the marginalisation of prime ministerial aspirants who are not from Hindi-speaking backgrounds. Even the opposition coalition I.N.D.I.A. has, at various times, suggested Nitish Kumar, Arvind Kejriwal or Rahul Gandhi as potential prime ministers. This Hindi-speaking bias is sure to intensify after delimitation. In fact, the biggest gainer under delimitation would be the state of Uttar Pradesh, growing from 80 seats today to 109 seats (a 36% increase). Given that delimitation will be based on the first Census conducted in 2026, it is plausible that the delayed Census could be used to enforce a new Lok Sabha by 2029, and certainly by 2034. It is no secret that this would be a boon to Yogi Adityanath’s prime ministerial ambitions.

For this reason, it is important to move the question of delimitation from its abstract theoretical principles to a more careful consideration of its implications for fiscal support from the Centre in the Indian context as well as the political leadership of the country. There is no doubt that delimitation will result in a reallocation of parliamentarians towards the more populous Hindi-speaking states, where the BJP has built a strong base of support. It also means that even if the BJP has to form a coalition with regional actors (like those in the South) in future elections, the relative bargaining power of these regional actors will be much lower due to the importance of the large Hindi-speaking states to the BJP.

A way forward?

A delimitation process cannot be wished away; it is certain to happen. We must seek solutions to minimise inequitable outcomes across different regions of India.

The BJP’s landslide victories in the last two national elections are, in some part, driven by the electoral system in India, where the first-past-the-post electoral system of choosing a single member of parliament from a constituency results in a mismatch between vote share and seat share. In particular, the BJP won 282 seats (52% of seats) on a 31% vote share in 2014, and 303 seats (56% of seats) on a 37% vote share in 2019. Moving to a proportional representation system, where vote shares and seat shares match, would almost certainly result in more diverse ruling coalitions with greater regional representation.

But electoral systems are hard to change. At a minimum, discretionary spending and fiscal transfers need to conform to a “federal means test” which adheres to the principles of federalism. In theory, the Rajya Sabha should be an avenue for a federal means test like the US Senate, but, in practice, the awkward system for allocation of seats in the Rajya Sabha blunts this purpose. Rajya Sabha MPs are not directly elected by citizens and their number is related to the state’s overall population — not to mention that there is no domicile requirement for them.

The need for a federal means test has already been recognised; this is why, for instance, the GST Council only gives the Centre one-third weight in voting outcomes, with the remaining two-third weight coming from representatives selected by state governments. Similar committees or processes can be instituted for certain fiscal transfers from the Centre to attenuate the fiscal impacts of delimitation.

Greater regional representation in fiscal decisions from the Centre would go a long way towards achieving more equitable outcomes, and decrease the heat on an increasingly contentious debate around delimitation.

(The author is Senior Fellow, Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi)

Published 04 November 2023, 23:41 IST

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