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Saturday, March 15, 2003

The Constitution mandates that boundaries of Assembly and Parliamentary constituencies be adjusted every 10 years (Delimitation), taking into account the changes in population, density and other demographic variations. This exercise should be based on the decennial census. The basic principle behind this exercise is to ensure that every constituency has roughly equal number of voters and that reserved constituencies are spread across the state while ensuring that they are located as far as practicable, in areas where the proportion of their population to the total is comparatively large.

The last delimitation was done in 1976. Since then, through a constitutional amendment, the Assembly and Parliamentary constituencies were frozen for 25 years. This was done to ensure that states which were successful in controlling their population, do not lose parliamentary seats to those states which failed to control their population. 2001 marked the end of the Constitutional freeze and the issue had to be reopened. Once again the Parliament unanimously amended the Constitution to freeze the number of Assembly and Lok Sabha seats in each state until 2026, and delimit afresh these constituencies on the basis of 1991 census. There shall be no further delimitation until 2026. If delimitation for parliamentary constituencies is undertaken, states like Tamilnadu, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, and Kerala will lose substantial representation and states like Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Madhya Pradesh will gain significant number of seats. Therefore the new constitutional amendment was enacted in order to uphold the federal balance.

But within each state, there have been vast demographic changes. For example, if you consider Hyderabad city, you have Maharanigunj Assembly constituency with approximately 100,000 voters and on the other side there is Khairatabad constituency with 600,000 voters! Delimitation is meant to remove such distortions.

Delimitation is a serious exercise of great political significance as it affects the representation of people in legislatures. It can also be an intensely partisan exercise as it usually is in the US. The party with a majority in the US has a major say in redistricting and unusual shapes of constituencies are common in order to contrive a majority for a party. The term gerrymandering has its origins in a constituency which was shaped like a salamander, and the governor under whose stewardship it was created was Elbridge Gerry.

India fortunately has a tradition of an independent Delimitation Commission established by law. The present Commission (under the 2002 Law) is chaired by Justice Kuldip Singh, a former Supreme Court judge and Mr Tandon, the member of Election Commission, and the State Election Commission of the respective state (for that state) are members of this Commission. A few members of Parliament and Assembly from each state are associate members without any voting rights.

This time around the Commission has taken a very curious approach to this democratic exercise affecting the political boundaries and electoral arithmetic. Instead of opening up the process and conducting its proceedings transparently, the activities of the Commission are shrouded in absolute secrecy. The Commission directed election officials not to divulge even routine information on public record like maps of existing constituencies, their relationship with administrative units and population details. This blanket ban on revealing information, which ought to be in the public domain, is a strange and retrograde approach in this era of information and communication and enactment of a Right to Information Law!

The commission has not so far held any single meeting with all members to finalise the guidelines for delimitation. The officials are preparing proposals in utmost secrecy without involving the state election commissioners, associate members or political parties. There are several state-specific issues which need to be addressed. For instance in AP we have small administrative units called Mandals with about 50,000 – 60,000 population. Just as an Assembly constituency always forms part of a Lok Sabha constituency, we should make sure that a Mandal falls within an Assembly constituency. This organic linkage between local, state and national representation is necessary for a healthy democracy.

Similarly reservations for S Cs require to be well-spread out to ensure fairness and dispersion. If all reservations for Assembly or Parliament are done mechanically, many constituencies in a district or region may be reserved, leaving vast areas unrepresented by SCs.

Finally any delimitation affects the political fortunes of various parties and candidates. A slight alteration in the boundaries can alter the relative weight of social groups. Therefore complete transparency is vital to give confidence to all stakeholders about the fairness of the process.

Recent press reports indicated that the Commission officials held meetings of district collectors in utmost secrecy to finalise draft delimitation proposals. When the venue was revealed by the media, it was changed in the last minute to ensure secrecy! Such obsession with secrecy in a democratic exercise smacks of arrogance and contempt for the political process.

The Delimitation Commission would be wise to evolve objective, fair and acceptable guidelines in consultation with the political parties, media and public, and then undertake redrawing of political boundaries. We all have developed a healthy skepticism of the political parties over the years. But this skepticism should not degenerate into revulsion and contempt.

Politics is the essence of democracy and people's sovereignty. Our endeavor should be to improve politics, not to stifle it. Constitutional authorities and statutory bodies in recent times have tended to act imperiously because of the popular disenchantment with politics of corruption and venality. The only antidote to bad politics is more and better politics, not negation of politics and public discourse.

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