In a couple of months time, we will witness the launch of the largest sports competition in history: Summer Olympics 2004. Within a couple of days, India, herself, will launch the largest electoral competition in human history. They are the General Elections 2004.
The Olympics are reputed to foster the spirit of fair fight between contestants so that only the very best are selected and finally rewarded. Now imagine an Olympic event, a lop-sided 400 meter running race, where one contestant is permitted to bribe the timekeepers, abuse drugs or coerce the referees into working in his/her favour. While all other honest and more capable contestants are forced to run with a hand or leg tied to their backs. Not one person watching this event on the TV would consider it a fair fight, obviously.
While we take fair Olympics for granted, we seem to settle for something less than fair when it comes to the Indian elections. Fair means for selecting a medallist but foul ways for electing a candidate?
Let me elaborate: our country is one of the most open and mature democracies in the entire world. Our elections, in general, successfully reflect the overall public opinion. This should be a matter of pride for all Indians. At the same time, our electoral system suffers from serious systemic shortcomings that cry out for urgent reforms. For example: there are innumerable instances when strong candidates and even stronger governments were rejected by the voters. However, while we are capable of rejecting unsuitable entities, or punishing aurogant governments we seem to be incapable of electing suitable persons to office.
Starting with the first general election of 1952, we have now reached a stage where honest, motivated and hardworking individuals, in spite of being capable in every sense, do not stand any reasonable chance of winning a state or parliamentary election on their own. Here is a litmus test: are you able to read this newspaper and comprehend its contents? Then, it is near certain that a candidate of your liking will not win in the coming elections. More likely is that a person of your liking will not even contest the election, in the first place. And why is that? The answer lies in the peculiar choice of our electoral system and how previous generations of Indians have framed the rules of that game.
India has chosen the ‘First-Past-The-Post’ (FPTP) electoral scheme, mostly as a matter of convenience in following the British democratic traditions. Under this scheme, a candidate with the highest number of votes in a constituency is chosen to represent the people of that constituency, in the state or national legislature(s). This is the first drawback of FPTP: the entire concept of winning an electoral mandate is artificially abridged to obtaining a minimum of one vote more than the nearest rival – at the level of a constituency. If it takes divisive caste politics or muscle power or vote-buying, so be it. The only thing that matters to politicians is getting that one extra vote.
If decent, capable and honest candidates from normal family backgrounds and with no access to huge funds do decide to contest elections, they face a huge disadvantage. This is another key drawback with the FPTP: extensive public support to ‘clean’ candidates across a large region or even an entire state does not count. Their ‘winnability’ in a constituency is very low because votes cast to a candidate other than the winner are simply worthless under the FPTP. That is why locally entrenched politicians with family/caste, money and criminal connections keep getting elected from their ‘home’ constituencies - irrespective of their overall competency levels.
The Olympics are symbolized by five interwoven circles apparently representing the spirit of unity between the five continents. May be, the Indian Elections too can have the five linked circles as their symbol. Only that they represent the five vicious cycles of corruption, criminalization, voting fraud, selling of votes and caste/divisive impulses that seem to intermesh so nicely with one another and script our politics.
And a large part of the blame goes to our electoral system, which has degenerated into a highly unfair competitive selection processes. Today, we have almost exhausted the efficacy of our purely FPTP electoral system – it no longer captures the voters’ burning desire to elect only deserving candidates. No wonder, only ten democracies in the entire world – all former British colonies – have been following this FPTP system for reasonable length of time. Instead, our elections should permit a fair fight between candidates and should make it easier for deserving candidates to win. Until now, even if the voters supported good candidates, be it across large regions, it carried no electoral significance. Recognition and genuine representation of such voters’ choices is a key to rectifying our electoral system.