Electing proportionately - Are we serious about electoral reforms?

For some time now we have talked about electoral reforms in the country Shri. Seshan brought a bouquet of change that had a lot to do with his personal style. Like many such flowers, they faded once the gardener retired. Just the thorns remained. But to be fair to the former CEC, the electoral process has been irreversibly transformed in terms of public scrutiny and relative transparency. Of course much of this is cosmetic in nature. Gujarat has taught us to understand that democracy has its own imperfect ways. Sometimes democracy appears not to work to our satisfaction but as has been said, we have no better method of governing than democracy.

How many flags a candidate puts up and how many vehicles campaign for him or her may be important, but their impact on the outcome of elections is relatively marginal Gujarat also proved that many undesirable electoral inputs are virtually impossible to eradicate entirely. But there are other equally dangerous things that can and must be eliminated. The role of caste and misuse of religion have grown exponentially in the past 10 to 15 years. Most politicians and political parties have in varying degrees surrendered to these unwholesome developments in Indian politics. Some political parties, particularly in UP and Bihar, have sought to project themselves as parties representing particular castes. Fortunately, no single caste can ever hope to muster enough vote of its own to capture power in a sustainable manner. For example S.P. would be a non-starter with 6% Yadav vote if a bulk of 18% Muslims of UP had not supported it. Eeven Mayawati with 18% Jatav vote would not cross 60 seats in a house of 403 if she did not get a significant number of Muslims. The BJP's combine of upper caste (Brahmin & Thakur) with Backwards (Lodhi and Katiyar) came unstuck with Kalyan Singh's exit and has not recovered from that shock. Manifestoes and development programme have steadily become irrelevant as politics because confine to a zero sum game. Naturally the BJP with its sights or a majority versus minority' strategy that they believe to be unbeatable, will repeatedly return to religions and psudo religions themes like Ayodhya, Madarsas, Cultural Nationalism etc.

Is there something about our electoral system that encourages and promotes these tendencies that are detrimental to the growth of a healthy democracy? We were not influenced by these political games even in 1947, when the trauma and suspicion would have been very intense, and jostling for domination of the emerging socio-political structures, most desperate. Although no single reason could have influenced change in our political thinking so dramatically, it is clear that the electoral system, by putting a premium on caste and religion, has contributed considerably. This is the aspect that we need to address more urgently than the routine accounting matters that we have emphasised in electoral reform thus far.

A close look at the experience of Germany, Sri Lanka, and South Africa etc will be most rewarding. They all follow the PR (proportionate representation) model in some form or the other. It is also know as the list system. Each party release a priority list of candidates whose election is dependent on the percentage of votes secured by their party in the election. Thus no candidate stands from a particular constituency (in the full PR system). There is a cut off of 5% vote from the bottom to get representation. The voter votes for a party and not a candidate. So there is less chance of a voter identifying with the caste, religion or any other irrelevant attribute of the object of his vote. Since every party will need to draw voters from all parts of the country (instead of particular region or constituencies as at present) the list of the party will inevitably have to be cosmopolitician and broad based.

Ofcourse there are advantages and disadvantages too. On the positive side, in the absence of personal identity, the tendency to capture polling stations and forcibly dump' votes for one's favourite candidate in negation of democracy, will certainly diminish. No person would want to place themselves in peril for a beneficiary who does not even know of the deed. On the other hand without a close legal and political bond between an elected representative and the constituency there may be very little reason left for politicians to nurse and nurture constituencies. Lack of interdependence between politicians and their voters may be a dangerous thing for a volatile polity like ours. But this can easily be addressed by introducing the German model of 50% PR seats and 50% direct election seats. A person can choose to be fielded through both streams. Constituency politics and nurturing is a fulltime and increasingly difficult job. Some times outstanding parliamentarians and desirable leaders who represent the best face of politics cannot get elected because their parties have lost their political base in their states. Many of them seek refuge in the Rajya Sabha and are seen by their colleagues as œback-door entrants. No party is an exception; less than two decades ago even Atal Bihari Vajpayee and L.K. Advani were similarly placed. So the PR list system will atleast ensure that the best faces and minds do not get pushed out of the political race.

There are many interesting variant of the PR list system that can be adapted for Assembly and Local Body elections. It may be felt that a District level proportionate representation is called for. It may also be that the election would throw up several candidates of one party, but that the voter would like to see his or her own priority amongst then. In other words which of the candidates of the preferred party should make it to be elected' list should also be the choice of the voter. The system is flexible enough to accommodate this as well.

One of the consequences of the PR system is that majority governments are less likely and coalitions will be inevitable. Looking at recent developments in our country, that in itself might not be something that would be very different from the existing system outcome. Furthermore, for a party to claim absolute majority with 30% popular vote many not be a very democratic attitude. Coalitions may introduce a greater degree of instability but they also provide greater participation. In some systems, besides the PR legislature, there is a directly elected Chief Executive as well. So stability is not something that is necessarily scarified in our pursuit of a better system of choosing our representatives.

But there must be good and cogent reasons for disagreeing. The onus lies on those who are enjoying disproportionate fruits of the present system, to prove that proportionate representation is unfair or unsuitable for Indian democracy.

Salman Khurshid