Would a different system have produced different results? Is there a pattern over multiple elections of the current system disproportionately impacting one party? These are interesting questions in the debate on what is the ‘right’ electoral system for India.
Graphic: Rahul Awasthi
There are four broad principles of electoral systems across the world, which have been adopted with modifications by different democracies. In the world’s oldest democracy, the US, the need for a cohesive union of fractious states in the founding days of the republic led to the adoption of a one-size-fits-all methodology: irrespective of size, each state is allotted two seats in the Senate. In most European nations, the need to ensure appropriate representation of the diversity of the region led to the adoption of a proportional representation system. Perhaps it was the need for ease of electoral comprehension for a largely illiterate population that drove India’s founding fathers to adopt the simplistic British FPTP system. To enumerate, the four ideologies are:
Past the half-mark: A winner is declared only if a candidate gets more than 50 per cent of the vote. If that does not happen, there’ll be multiple rounds of election till there’s a winner.
Proportional representation: Seats are allotted in proportion to the votes received by each party. If the BJP wins 30 per cent of the vote in Uttar Pradesh, it would receive 24 seats (30 per cent of the 80 seats in the state).
Winner takes all in a state: The US presidential electoral college system follows this principle. If a particular party wins a majority of votes in a particular state, it takes all seats in that state. So if the BJP wins the most votes in Uttar Pradesh, it will get all 80 seats.
The FPTP system: This is the system India follows, in which a simple majority determines the winner.
An interesting, albeit unscientific, exercise would be to observe how different the 2014 results would have been under each of the four systems, and more importantly, to deduce if there are any trends of the impact of different systems on the main alliances, the Congress-led UPA and the BJP-led NDA. The reason this would be unscientific is because it’s misleadingly simplistic to make the calculations presuming that voter behaviour would not change under different systems. Also, it would be intellectually arrogant to try to mathematically model this change in human behaviour, much to the chagrin of many neo-classical economists. So, with the sole intention to observe any trends over time, this analysis shows how many seats the UPA and the NDA would have won under these four systems in each of the four elections since 1999. Data for all 543 constituencies were analysed and aggregated state-wise to calculate the seats won under the three systems other than FPTP.
The most striking difference turns up in the proportional voteshare system. The Congress has a steady sizeable voteshare in most states, which however does not translate into seats in the FPTP system. In the 2014 elections, the proportional system would have given the UPA 130 seats instead of its current tally of 59; and the NDA would have got 210 seats instead of the current 336. Also, the BSP, with no seats now, would have got 23; the SP (five now) would have got 18; the Left (nine now) would have got 16; the YSR Congress (nine now) would have got 12; the AAP (four now) would have got 11; the DMK (nil now) would got nine; and the JD(U) (two now) would have got seven.
This is understandable as the diversity of the nation is manifested through various regional or identity-based parties. It’s also evident that, in a plural society like India, a proportional system will further encourage division of the national vote and spur the rise of regional parties. On average, under the proportional system, the Congress would have won 130 per cent of its actual seats and the BJP 80 per cent. That is, the Congress would have won more seats, the BJP less. The winner-takes-all system throws up no surprises: the winners only consolidate their victory even further. The chart shows how very little separates the two national parties in winnability under the different systems. The only outlier is the UPA potentially garnering more than double its 2014 tally under the proportional system.
Identity plays an inordinately determinant role in most democracies. In democracies where there are identities galore, as in India, parties tend to lean on identity politics even more. In a diverse democracy such as ours, the FPTP system incentivises parties to focus as much (or more) on splitting an opponent’s vote as on getting votes. A proportional system exaggerates this motivation to enable capitalising on identity votebanks. The argument that this system is a truer representation of plurality is perhaps valid. But it carries with it a big risk of divisive politics. Choosing the right electoral system for a country is incredibly complicated. The current system may not be perfect but it’s not evident that the alternatives are obvious choices.
By Praveen Chakravarty with Abhishek Bhattacharya
(The writer is founding trustee of IndiaSpend, India’s first non-profit, data journalism initiative.)
Thank you to all those who have taken the trouble to read the article and share their thoughts. Out of the arguments made here, there are two that perhaps need answering. So here they go.
1. The first part of the article compares outcomes (relative percentages of population of the religions concerned) irrespective of the process that led to those outcomes - whether immigration, relatively faster population growth or conversions. This was for two reasons. One, to put the figure of 2.3 per cent in "numerical perspective", as the article itself explained. The second reason was that outcomes are ultimately what the crux of debate is about. The rest of the article in any case dealt with process - or conversions in this case, from both a contemporary and historical perspective.
2. Some commenters have tried to cast doubts on the reliability of Census 2001. Those who do this should bear in mind that Census 2001 was conducted by a BJP government. Considering the extreme importance that BJP gives to this issue, it would be reasonable to expect that IF it had perceived a problem with the methodology that was distorting the numbers, it would have fixed it. As the article mentioned, BJP or BJP-supported governments have been in power for 10 of the last 40 years, or about a quarter of the time, and the only reasonable conclusion one can arrive at is that any misreporting of numbers, real or perceived, would be marginal and hence, not of importance.
To all other arguments made, my answer is the following: Please read the article again, with particular focus on the quotations of Vivekananda and Monier Williams, and the history of the missionary efforts in Bengal and their outcome.
What is food for goose is not the same for the gander.The vanquished's most desired pill of proportional representation, will be bitter to the winner. The mood inside and outside North Block is wholly different. We are comfortable, & rather used to this anamony and talk about it only when curtains of elections are dropped. The campaign to implement PR will gain traction, if the social activists are highly serious about it. The score of 31 means demotion in the studies, though contrarily ensures a top job in the centre. A leader, though not the choice of 69% of Indians, may well be anointed.
Honestly cannot recall the last time there was so much debate in the media about the pitfalls of the first past the post system, which allows a party that has received less than half of the popular vote to rule the country. We must bring in proportional representation.
I would like Gopal Gandhi and many others like him who have advanced the specious argument that 69 per cent of the people did NOT vote for Modi to rule, to explain whether the ENTIRE country voted for Sonia to rule by proxy through her dormant appointee Manmohan in 2004, when her party had only 145 seats to the BJP's 138. The writer must be complimented for this presentation. By advancing such pleas, which are only self seeking, self serving and meant to apply some salve on their own bleeding party, Congress is only making a mockery of the process of elections adopted in this country, though it would be equally adept at twisting the same process to its glory when it suits Congress to do so.
The secularists who swear by democracy day and night find it hard to digest the verdict given by the electorate. They had no problem with first past the post system when it resulted in power to the family. BJP won fair and square. Just accept and stop moaning. It is very boring. Here are some facts. NDA got 38.5% of the vote share not 31%. 31% was BJP's vote share based on the seats BJP contested. BJP had not contested 543 seats, in fact it had contested many fewer than Congress. If the BJP had contested all 543 seats, it's vote share would have been considerably higher. I would guess at least 35% or perhaps higher.
But the self proclaimed "intellectuals" from the secular factory have never been known to let facts get in the way of their God given right to pontificate to the lesser mortals.
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