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Saturday, September 11, 2004

Whenever people in general, and pundits in particular, talk about the state of democracy in our country their discussion is limited to talking about the ills plaguing our system. We all know that flawed electoral rolls, polling irregularities, vote buying, unaccountable use of money in elections, criminalisation of politics and the curse of defections are some of the topics which keep the people engaged. Indeed, these are serious abuses of power. However, instead of simply ranting about them, why not look at the solutions in a holistic way? There is no doubt that recent developments have established that these distortions have now acquired disturbing proportions calling for urgent remedies.

Contemporary trends in India are even more alarming, viewed in the context of liberalization policies. The last decade witnessed a stark rise in corruption in this country in certain spheres. There wasn’t a single public office whose transgressions did not lead to raised eyebrows. Corruption declined in certain areas as the license-permit raj was dismantled, and competition replaced monopolies and scarcities. But, as the inexhaustible demand for illegitimate funds in our political system has not been addressed, corruption is shifting to more dangerous areas of state activity. The Telgi stamp scam, the systematic leak of several question papers including CAT, and the sting operation in Ahmedabad in which a judge gave warrants of arrest against the President and Chief Justice for a price – these are illustrations of the changing nature of corruption.

On the positive side, the good news is that India’s political reforms are catching momentum, especially in the past couple of years. For instance, disclosure norms are now applicable to all candidates for elective office; improvements in voter registration are now in the pipeline; and far-reaching political funding reforms were enacted in September 2003. Other reforms include tightening anti-defection provisions (Tenth Schedule) disqualifying all members violating party whip irrespective of their size; limiting of the size of council of ministers to 15% of the membership of the lower house; and changes in Rajya Sabha election provisions. All these reforms are indicative of the urgency with which our governance system is addressing some elements of our political crisis. Never before were so many changes witnessed in such a short period in any major democracy during peaceful and normal times of stability.

However, while most of the reforms were necessary, they are by no means sufficient. Unless we take a critical and comprehensive look at our political system, we cannot find answers to our governance crisis. True, the governance crisis is not limited to our political process alone. Our bureaucracy and judiciary too have glaring inadequacies. But any reform has to begin with the political process, because every election is a mandate for peaceful transformation. And it is the politicians that should drive change in other segments of state.

Sadly, given our systemic compulsions, the politicians who are the drivers of the democratic engine are all too often lost on the road, taking to corruption and self aggrandizement at the cost of the public. In fact it would seem as if the entire system has become a kind of spider’s web in which those on the inside don’t know how to get out, and those on the outside neither want to, nor can, get inside. Each group watches the other with undisguised suspicion and even contempt.

So when the politicians themselves have become victims of this vicious cycle, how should we approach reform? The solution lies not merely in changing the politicians, but in changing the whole political process. Today we choose our politicians through the Westminster model of first-past-the-post (FPTP) system. In this FPTP system, only a high threshold of votes for a party ensures victory or success in representation. Significant but scattered support to a party or candidates does not pay electoral dividends. Therefore voters prefer other “winnable” parties and candidates. National parties and reform groups are thus increasingly marginalized in many parts of India. The polity is thus regionalized, and the status quo is perpetuated. Moreover, the FPTP system under-represents scattered minorities and over-represents concentrated social groups. This results in marginalization and ghettoization of excluded groups, and promotes insecurity and encourages strategic voting and vote bank politics. In such a situation, obscurantists become interlocutors of the excluded groups, drowning voices of reason and modernity, and politicians pander to fundamentalists and sectarianism. Most of all, decent and honorable people are increasingly excluded from electoral process, as intense competition for the marginal vote leads to dominance of money, caste and muscle power.

Proportional Representation (PR) unlike FPTP doesn’t create a single ‘winner’ from an election. The overall representation of parties in legislature will be based on the proportion of valid vote obtained by them. A party will be entitled to such a quota based on vote share only when it crosses a threshold, say 10% of vote in a major state, and more in minor states. 50% of legislators could be elected from territorial constituencies based on FPTP system. There will be two votes cast by voters - one for a candidate for FPTP election, and the other for a party to determine the vote share of the parties. This will ensure the link between the legislator and the constituents. The balance 50% will be allotted to parties to make up for their shortfall based on proportion of votes. For instance, if the party is entitled to 50 seats in legislature based on vote share, but had 30 members elected in FPTP system, 20 more will be elected based on the party list. On the other hand, if the party is entitled to 50 seats based on vote share, but had only 10 members elected in FPTP system, it will have 40 members elected from the list.

A representational system based on the above model creates incentives for increasing the popular base of any party. Fair representation becomes possible as seats are ultimately allotted in proportion to the share of valid votes polled at the state level and not just the constituency. Parties therefore prefer to address broad based issues to win greater number of votes and would now field candidates with a more socially agreeable background, commitment, and competence. These incentives under PR are strong enough to moderate even radical and exclusionary parties. However to make PR work fully, certain facilitating factors must exist. The party lists must be selected democratically at the State and multi-member constituency level, by the members of the party or their elected delegates through secret ballot. Absence of inner party democracy will stifle intra-party deliberation, resulting in choice of candidates being made on the basis of favoritism.

The other systemic reform objective to insulate the executive at state level from unwanted influences, by ensuring direct election of Head of Government in States. As election costs have skyrocketed, candidates spend money in anticipation of rewards and opportunities for private gain after election. Legislators perceive themselves as disguised executive, and chief ministers are hard pressed to meet their constant demands. Postings, transfers, contracts, tenders, tollgates, parole, developmental schemes, and crime investigation - all these become sources of patronage and rent seeking. No government functioning honestly can survive under such circumstances. While the legislators never allow objective and balanced decision-making by the executive, in the actual functioning of legislature, their role has become nominal and largely inconsequential. This blurring of the lines of demarcation between the executive and legislature is one of the cardinal features of the crisis of our governance system.

Therefore, separation of powers, and direct election are necessary in the states. At the national level, such a direct election is fraught with serious dangers. Our linguistic diversity demands a parliamentary executive. There are legitimate concerns that any individual seen as the symbol of all authority at the national level can easily become despotic, given our political culture. But in the states, separation of powers poses no such dangers. The Union government, Supreme Court, constitutional functionaries like the Election Commission, UPSC, and CAG, and the enormous powers and prestige of the Union will easily control authoritarianism in any state. Therefore a system of direct election of the head of government in the states gives us all the benefits, with few risks.

In such a system, the legislature will be elected separately and directly while the ministers will be drawn from outside the legislature. The legislature will have a fixed term, and cannot be dissolved prematurely except in exceptional circumstances (sedition, secession etc) by the Union government. The head of government will have a fixed term, and cannot be voted out of office by the legislature. Any vacancy of office will be filled by a due process of succession. The elected head of government will have no more than two terms of office. Even though these changes may not be a panacea to all evils in the present structure of legislature and executive, they will certainly encourage more healthy and vibrant democracy and political processes. Further, clear delineation of functions between Union and the states, and among various tiers of local governments is also a necessary condition for a better governance.

We certainly need to enforce reforms such as Right to Information and Citizen’s Charter to promote accountability. But the fundamental nature of incentives required to reward integrity and propriety can be promoted only by adopting better and fairer models of representation, and clearer separation of the executive from legislature in states. These reform measures will not only enhance representational legitimacy of our political system but will also ensure autonomy to our political executive with sufficient accountability mechanisms in place. Proportional Representation and Direct Elections of chief executive at state level are therefore two such big steps that will help in uniting the diverse population, and creating conditions to enrich and strengthen democracy in our country. Mere piece-meal changes are not enough; we need to look at the big picture.