Time to overhaul electoral system

Now that the fever of elections in Karnataka has died down, it is time to dispassionately consider whether we need a more democratic electoral system. The poll panel seized more than Rs 182 crore worth of cash, liquor, gold, silver and drugs, which surely is just the tip of the iceberg. Thousands of cases have been booked for violations of the election code of conduct. All this, a sign that money and muscle power have got rooted in the system.

But the more significant fault-line lies in the fact that the Congress, which is supposed to have lost the election, actually obtained a 38% vote share, higher than the 36.2% of the BJP. Also, the Congress got 1.4% more than the 36.6% vote-share it obtained in 2013. The irony is that while the 2013 election delivered 122 seats and a clear majority to the Congress with its 36.6% vote share, it got only 78 seats this time with a 38% vote share. The BJP, with only 36.2% vote share, cornered 104 seats. 

The Congress and JD(S)+ together have a combined vote share of 56.7%, which reflects the majority will of Karnataka’s electorate. But often, parties that get less than 50% vote-share end up getting a majority of the seats, and the majority of voters who voted against them would go without representation in governance.  

These anomalies and unpredictable fluctuations in the number of seats obtained in relation to the vote share can be attributed to the faulty first-past-the-post (FPTP) system that we follow. If, instead of the FPTP, the Proportional Representation (PR) system was in place, there would be no difference between the percentage of votes a party got and the percentage of seats it won.

If seats were allocated as per vote share percentages, as required under the PR system, BJP would have got only 81, and not 104. Congress would have got 86 seats, and not 78, and been the single largest party. Small or regional parties which would find it difficult to get seats under the FPTP system would get representation as per their vote share in the PR system. Thus every vote counts in the PR system.

This is especially significant given that regional identities are gaining ground and coalitions are becoming the norm in Indian politics. India has multiple stakeholders and the marginalised, such as Dalits, Adivasis, minorities, etc., fail to get representation in the current system. 

The SC/STs, for instance, are able to get representation only through reserved seats, provided they follow the dictates of the dominant parties that field them. This makes them representatives of their parties and not representatives of their people. And since they have to cater to the interests of everyone in the constituency, they cannot work for the interests of only their marginalised group.

Multi-member segments

In the FPTP system, only a single member is elected from each constituency, hence the great rivalry and cut-throat competition at the constituency level. But in the PR system, each constituency can be a multi-member constituency so that several parties can get representation. This will reduce to a large extent the use of money and muscle power. And since voters vote for a party, the party’s ideology gains importance rather than the leaders, their caste, or their dynasties.  

One had to also witness, after the Karnataka election, the corrupt and shameful attempts to poach and abduct members from the opposite parties to gain a majority, and parties had to rush to resorts with their members to prevent defections.  If a member does defect or resign, when lured by an opposite party, a byelection has to be held at public expense and usually the same candidate wins under a different party banner.  

The PR system, on the other hand, would give no scope for horse-trading as each party has a prioritised list of candidates and, if a person resigns, the next candidate in the party list automatically gets his place and there is no by-election. The person who resigns loses his seat and cannot just walk into another party. 

The vote share obtained by a party and its corresponding number of seats remain sacrosanct in the PR system. Thus, this leads to a stable government and there will be no chance for members to bring down governments for their narrow ends. 

Sadly, in Karnataka, only seven women have been able to make it to the Assembly under the FPTP system. In the party list system, it is possible to mandate internal reservation for various under-represented groups, such as women, and Dalits, Adivasis, minorities, etc., as per their population. Many countries, by mandating that every other name in the party list should be that of a woman, have managed to increase women’s representation in the legislatures.

Campaign for Electoral Reforms in India (CERI) has been campaigning for introducing the PR system in India since 2008. The CERI manifesto recommends the German Mixed-Member Proportional Representation System for India. The Election Commission, too, has veered round to recommending the PR system for India. It remains to be seen if political parties realise its advantages.

(The writer is executive trustee, CIVIC Bangalore)

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