Saturday, March 2, 2024

Demand ‘Proportional Representation’ in elections

One of the most urgent systemic reforms needed for the betterment of minorities in India is reforms in the electoral process. The constitutionally mandated way of conducting elections to parliament and assembly in India is the First Past the Post (FPTP) system. Under the FPTP, a territory is divided into spatial constituencies; and each constituency sends one representative. The representative is elected through a vote, and the candidate receiving the most number of votes is considered elected, even if she receives, let’s say, even less than 20% of the votes. It is through this electoral system, borrowed from the British, that we have been conducting our elections since 1952 (and even before that). It is this system that enables parties with around a third of total votes to achieve a 2/3rd majority. This is what enabled Congress to receive 60% of seats with 35% votes, and this is what enabled BJP to achieve similar figures in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections bagging a whopping 56% seats with a mere 37% of the votes. 

The recent state elections too have been a testimony to this distortion caused by FPTP. In Bihar, both NDA and MGB received 37-38% votes; while NDA won 51.4% seats, MGB won 45.3%. In the Assam 2021 Assembly election, NDA got 45% votes but 59.5% seats. In Bengal in the same year, TMC with 48.5% votes won 73% seats, BJP with 38.5% votes got 26.4% seats while others with 9.4% votes got 2 seats. In Kerala, LDF got 67% seats and 41.5% votes, UDF got 28.6% seats against 38.4% votes, while others got 0 seats even against 11.4% vote share. 

This distortion can be observed by taking into consideration the 2014 Lok Sabha Elections too where in UP, BJP secured 89% seats and 42.6% of the votes, and SP secured 5 seats and 22 % of the votes; in Bengal, where AITC got 39.8% of the votes and secured 34 seats and CPI(M) got 2 seats with 22.96% of the votes. Similarly, in the 2019 Lok Sabha Elections, the INC secured 8 seats in Punjab with 40.6% of votes and the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) won 27.8% of the votes with 2 seats, and in Chhattisgarh, the BJP secured 51.4% of the votes with 9 seats while the INC secured 2 seats with 41.5% of the votes.

StatePartySeatVote Percentage
Uttar PradeshBJP7142.6%
West BengalAITC3439.8%
Table 1. Lok Sabha Election 2014

StatePartySeatVote Percentage
Table 2. Lok Sabha Election 2019

It is clear from the data presented above that FPTP leads to a distortion of seat percentage vis-à-vis vote percentage, and sometimes the distortion is acute. Another fact that is clear is that it reduces elections to bipolar contests, as most voters don’t want to risk voting for a losing candidate or party, hence, the election ends up being a contest between the two most influential candidates, squeezing out the third. Another glaring fact is that in FPTP elections in India, the majority of votes are “wasted” and a minority of votes elect the representative. 

It is a tribute to our education systems and the extremely limited debates on the meaning of democracy that most voters are not even aware that elections could be conducted in different manners or that FPTP has these demerits. Like everything else, this largest democracy has, it seems, a divinely ordained system of conducting elections and choosing representatives.

Consider another alternative, suppose P2 and P3 combine forces, getting 65%, and P1 gets 35%. In this case, P2 & P3 win all 5 seats while P1 receives 0. A similar result was seen in Bihar in 2015 when RJD and JDU combined forces & won a landslide victory. This is not a one-off incident; it has been happening for the last 70 years; half our votes have simply been wasted. An important consequence is that while most votes are wasted, a minority of votes are able to receive a disproportionate number of seats like Congress in the 1950s and 60s and BJP and AAP recently. And it is this system that gave BSP 0 seats in 2014, even though it received 4% of the votes. In a cultural, multi-communal India, this approach is anti-democratic. Another significant disadvantage of this system is that smaller parties cannot make their presence felt and have to:

  1. become part of an alliance, or, 
  2. be ready for being accused of cutting votes (vote cutter), like MIM in Bihar or Left in Bengal, or,
  3. be completely silenced. 

Suppose, in the P1-2-3 case discussed above, a slight modification occurs and a faction emerges from P1 taking 5% votes with it. That would mean that P1 is reduced to 30% and P2 with 33% wins all the seats, and P1 with 5% votes will get 0 seats and will face the charge of being a “vote-cutter” and hidden agent of P2. Such a dangerous system is a check on healthy factionalism and encourages monopolies. Since the executive & legislature are not separated in the Indian system (following the Westminster model) and both are populated (elected) through one single election, nor are candidates selected from the grassroots as in the UK, the monopoly of this 30% vote is manifold. This is why it has been easy for Congress or BJP to dominate all branches of government with merely 1/3rd of the electorate behind them. 

Joint elections with FPTP is probably the worst system as it makes the minorities helpless in terms of electing their representative. Such a system is especially detrimental to the interests of spatially dispersed communities such as religious minorities and smaller backward castes, as they are unable to win a single constituency on their own, even if they are politically and ideologically limited in certain elections. Another glaring drawback of FPTP is the ultimate power it gives to the executive in the shape of gerrymandering. Ever since partition, the delimitation exercise has been repeatedly used to disaggregate and disempower minorities, especially Muslims by dividing their pockets of votes into multiple seats so that they can’t affect the outcome of any one seat. This is the tried and tested way of the executive even in the US where it is called “gerrymandering” and is used to disempower Black and Latin voters. This arbitrary power of limitation alone is enough to discredit FPTP.

With such glaring defects, it would be useful to ask why our “founding fathers” (a term borrowed from US vocabulary) couldn’t think of a better system. Was there no better system? The answer is complicated. The constituent assembly debates clearly show the disagreement around this issue as Congress abolished separate electorates. Some Muslims did speak up demanding proportional representation. It needs to be noted, however,  that separate electorates have one significant demerit- that Hindus can’t vote for Muslims and vice versa. While Hasrat Mohani did raise this point, he also maintained that joint electorates with FPTP  would lead to the elimination of Muslim representation. He was one of the most vocal opponents of this system (FPTP). He, along with some other MP (MCA), argued for proportional representation where the number of seats would be decided by the percentage of votes received by any party.

In Proportional Representation (henceforth PR), Muslims can vote for Hindus and vice versa, but minorities can’t be silenced. PR ensures ideological voting and it helps minorities join forces when they wish to stop the majoritarian assault or fight internally along caste/class lines when such a threat of majority recedes from the political horizon and aligns horizontally across religious groups. For instance, in scenario 1, if there were 100 seats, P1 gets 35 seats, P2 gets 32 seats, P3 gets 33 seats and so on.  New Zealand, Turkey and Sri Lanka practice this form. This system ensures that no votes are wasted if they cross a sensible threshold, which has to be judiciously at 1%, 2% or 5% (Turkey has 10 %). The second advantage is that no one is a vote-cutter, one cannot “defeat” another by contesting, we are represented by the votes we get, not by how many votes who “cut” from the opponent’s pocket, etc. Third, it helps small parties start small, with let’s say 2 % and 2% seats. But Hasrat Mohani was shouted down by Congressmen. Some argued that it would be too complicated. But democracy in this subcontinent ought to be complicated! However, individual castes in the backward category as well as minorities could have to face the brunt, as they do even today as the new system guarantees that they don’t find representation. The Congress sought monopoly, and only FPTP could grant them this monopoly and deter factions or alternative ideologies from progressively building a base. FPTP also has an important bearing on the Dalit question, as Dalit scholars are fully aware that the reserved constituencies act as proxies for upper-caste parties who put up their candidates which are more often than not, carried through by UC voters.

In PR, such dependence would not be present and votes could be cast ideologically without any fear. And Ambedkarite leaders could be elected without antagonizing UC voters. Such an approach would make electoral reservation redundant ideally, or at least make it free of constituencies, and providing a minimum percentage for SC/ST members will suffice. Such an approach would help the minorities as well as the smaller Backward Castes, both among Muslims and Hindus, and others; the section which had been assiduously championed by Lohiaites such as Karpuri Thakur, Lalu Prasad and Nitish Kumar in Bihar. It is important to understand that without a fundamental change in the way elections are conducted and representatives are elected, the majority is not being represented either in the Legislative Assembly or the Parliament. Getting this right would take us one step closer to being a real democracy which wouldn’t still mean that we have become a democracy, unless and until:

  1. federalism is understood and implemented, and;
  2. the legislative and the executive are separated. 

But those are topics for detailed debates themselves. The first step we need to work towards is constructing a body of true representatives of people, as true as they can be: not this bogus body of FPTP candidates, where the majority is always “defeated” as if this is a war and not an attempt to elect our representative who will convey our desires and demands. 

The Muslims of India have been one of the worst victims of this system over the last 70 years as the data on their representation in every Assembly and Parliament testifies. What BJP is able to do today, Congress did for decades. The system didn’t change it; it was always unjust. New electoral alliances, new leaders, and new parties are not going to help the minorities and small Backward Castes; what we need and need urgently, is a systemic and fundamental change in the way elections are imagined and conducted. It is our responsibility and compulsion to transform this system into a transparent and representative democracy. 

The attempt here has been to let the system oscillate between one-party and two-party systems. The value of min (P) is between 1 and 2. Some people argue for a two-party system with BJP & Congress as two national parties, and over the years the national media and opinion have been steered in this direction. In short, we want to imitate the US in the only major demerit their system has, while ignoring all the merits of federalism. India and South Asia are infinitely richer in terms of diversity among states, and even inside any given particular state. The idea of two parties is simply undemocratic, but the Indian polity was designed in such a way that it privileges the existence and survival of fewer parties (between 1 & 2). The “majoritarianism” of the BJP is possible not because of the FPTP which was put in place by Congress just for this reason. 

It is easy to pay lip service to democracy and secularism, but the difficult task is identifying structural deficiencies which have rendered minorities helpless; and have been aiding, rather than checking the majoritarian assault. The abandonment of FPTP and the adoption of PR is probably the most important and urgent structural change vis-à-vis bringing democracy to minorities. All “secular” parties must introspect and think about this rather than paying lip service to secularism.

Sharjeel Imam is a Muslim student leader and research scholar. He is currently incarcerated under the anti-terror law for his alleged role in 2020 Delhi pogrom among other cases.

[Election data for India has been sourced from


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