dir="ltr">This week, following the Election Commission’s recommendation, the Union government enhanced the election expenditure limits of candidates. For major states, the ceiling for Assembly now is Rs. 10 lakhs (Rs. 6 lakh earlier), and for Lok Sabha it is Rs. 25 lakhs (Rs. 15 lakh earlier). This revision became necessary with the recent change of law which plugged the loophole by including party expenditure in ceiling limits. Electioneering costs money, and the new legislation created tax incentive for legitimate funding for political activity. Recognised parties can now communicate to people through electronic media free of cost. All these changes have created avenues for raising resources for legitimate electioneering.
But the problem of election expenditure is far more complicated. The real cost of election in Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu is already about Rs. 1 crore for a serious candidate to state legislature. The bulk of this expenditure is illegitimate – to buy votes with money and liquor, bribe officials to connive at malpractices, and hire goondas to rig polls and browbeat voters. While high expenditure does not guarantee victory, low expenditure almost certainly guarantees defeat! Parties and candidates are thus trapped in a vicious cycle of high expenditure and corruption in public office. Politics has become big business yielding multiple returns on investment, through transfers, contracts, and tampering with crime investigation. In most constituencies, political fiefdoms have come to exist with the help of ill-gotten money, caste clout, political contacts, criminal links and family tradition. For these families, investment in politics is a natural and highly profitable option. Parties are merely labels of convenience, to be changed at will before elections. Many honest politicians are finding it increasingly difficult to match the resources and caste mobilization of these fiefdoms, and are forced to either retire from contests or resort to corruption for survival.
In the first-part-the post system (FPTP) we adopted from Britain, the candidate who wins most number of votes in a constituency is elected, and all other votes for the losing parties do not count. There are no prizes for runner-ups. Therefore, parties have no choice but to opt for “winnable” candidates, who invariably dominate the political fiefdoms. FPTP system thus led to several unhappy consequences. First, parties are forced to go for those candidates, however undesirable, who will somehow get elected. Second, candidates are forced to resort to vote buying and rigging in order to overtake the rivals. The overall electoral verdict is still fair, because there is a system of compensatory errors at work, whereby the malpractices of one party are neutralized by the rival party. But these distortions necessarily mean that honest, decent and public-spirited candidates have no realistic chance of being nominated or elected. That is why outstanding politicians like Manmohan Singh, Arun Jaitley or Arun Shourie have to be elected to the Rajya Sabha!
Third, FPTP has led to overrepresentation of social groups with concentrated populations, and underrepresentation of scattered minorities. The political hegemony of a few caste groups is thus perpetuated. Muslims never got their due representation, and therefore ghettoization, vote-bank politics, strategic voting and communal polarization became the inevitable consequences. Reservation of constituencies for Dalits too did not help, because the Dalit candidates have to depend on the local dominant groups for their political survival.
What can we do about the unhealthy trends of vote buying, political oligopolies, criminalization, caste domination, and distorted representation? Clearly, given the diverse nature of our society, and the relative poverty and ignorance prevailing, FPTP system has accentuated our problems and led to a deep political crisis. Our familiarity with British institutions and practices made us accept FPTP as the only natural electoral system. But only 10 countries – Bangladesh, Canada, India, Malaysia, Nepal, Pakistan, Philippines, UK, US, Zambia – follow FPTP system in single-member constituencies. Even Australia (alternative vote) and New Zealand (proportional representation), though former British colonies, have different systems. In fact, 43 functioning democracies have other systems of election. of these, 36 countries follow proportional representation (PR). PR is a system by which a party’s overall voting percentage determines its representation in legislature.
PR differs from FPTP in three critical ways. First, the party’s image and platform determine the outcome. Therefore, the party does not have to depend on local fiefdoms and crime lords for success. Honest and decent candidates can be nominated by the party in the list. Second, electoral success does not depend on the plurality of votes in any constituency, and all votes polled in favour of a party in a whole state or country count. Therefore, there is no incentive to spend exorbitant sums to buy votes locally. Third, scattered minorities will get representation as their overall vote counts, even though they may not have concentrated pockets of influence. PR thus radically alters the nature of elections and removes many distortions plaguing our democracy. When Gandhiji and Ambedkar had their famous disagreement on Dalit representation, they both were looking for a solution within the familiar British model. Reservation of Constituencies was the resultant compromise whereas PR would have met the requirements of all!
Even now, India is stuck with FPTP despite the fact that UK itself is embracing PR. European Parliament members in UK, and regional parliaments in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are all elected through PR! Macaulay’s prophesy that Indians would be the last surviving Englishmen has come true in a strange way!
Certainly there are problems in PR too. First, party leaders will become all-powerful if they are allowed to determine party candidates' lists. Therefore choice of candidates and their order of appearance on the list must be based on voting by members or their delegates in each region or district. Second, given our diversity and primordial caste loyalties, in PR system there is a danger of every caste forming a party and fragmenting our polity. In the post-mandal India, this is highly probable. This fragmentation can be prevented by having a reasonable threshold, of say 10 percent of the vote in a major state, as the minimum requirement for a party to get its members elected. Third, in PR the link between a territorial constituency and a member will disappear. This can be overcome by electing half the members through FPTP as now, and the other half drawn from party lists based on PR, in such a manner that the legislature will reflect the overall voting preference. This is the mixed system based on plurality and corrective PR, as practised in six countries – Bolivia, Germany, Italy, Mexico, New Zealand and Venezuela. There will be two votes – one for a candidate, and another for a party.
It is time we made our elections clean, fair, fully representative and hospitable for honest candidates. Funding reform was only a first step. Proportional representation is an idea whose time has come.