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It is for us to demonstrate that we are dedicated to the great task of ensuring that a government ‘of the people, by the people, and for the people’ shall not perish from India, for it was this mission of Swaraj for which freedom fighters, led by the Mahatma, sacrificed their lives and founded the Aam Aadmi Republic on August 15, 1947. For that, there are choices to be made.
The Westminster model of democracy In essence, under this system of parliamentary democracy that we inherited from the British, multiple parties contest in a nationwide election for seats in the lower house of Parliament. Polls held in each constituency are first-past-the-post, where the candidate with the most number of votes wins the seat and becomes a member of Parliament. The party with a majority of the seats forms the executive branch of government. If the majority of seats in the lower house are won by a single party, another party with even one per cent less number of seats will have no executive power. In short, even huge colossal electoral support for all but the majority party results in zero executive power. In a sense, this system disenfranchises a large percentage of the electorate, since their choices aren't necessarily reflected in the executive.
This model frequently results in a case where a party with a minor share of overall votes forms the government. Say there are four parties—in each of the constituencies, Party A gets 25 per cent, Party B gets 24 per cent, Party C gets 23 per cent, and Party D gets 20 per cent of votes, and the remaining votes get invalidated, so that Party A wins every constituency. Though Party A has only 25 per cent of the votes and only one per cent more than Party B, Party A will win all lower house seats, and therefore gain absolute executive power! This is a curious anomaly where the government could be run by a party with a one quarter mandate!
The Swiss model: multi-party executive, proportional representation & referendums Unlike the Westminster model, this model has a stable multi-party executive that operates by consensus, where power is shared between political parties in proportion to the percentage of total votes each party receives from the entire electorate. Under proportional representation, the proportion of votes received by a party (across all constituencies) decides the proportion of seats it will receive in the lower house, and also the proportion of ministers from that party in the cabinet.
In the Swiss model, any change in the constitution requires a referendum, thus giving citizens the last word on most important issues. Citizens can also request a referendum to challenge a law passed by parliament if one per cent of the electorate signals support for it through signatures. Actually, no referendums are triggered because the parliamentary process enjoys a very high level of legitimacy. This is largely because elected lawmakers know their work can be reviewed by the public. Further, citizens can also introduce amendments to the constitution by forcing a referendum if two per cent of the electorate signals support for the proposed amendment. As a result, important matters are decided by parliament, and the least important but most numerous issues are decided by the executive.
Both the Westminster and Swiss models are models of representative democracies. Which is most democratic and better represents the people? India’s model of democracy has become a plutocracy. Fundamentally, in democracy, the voice of the people must ultimately determine decision-making. But in India this is obscured by the rich purchasing the votes of the poor, with the result that democracy is only a myth, and is in reality more of a plutocracy. If Republicans come to power in the US, or Conservatives in the UK, democracy ceases to represent the ragtag and bobtail—the aam aadmi. In the final analysis, while the common man makes his little mark, the hand that moves the mark are the haves, who are in command. The proletariat votes the way the commanding ‘proprietariat’ wants. Frankly, we are governed democratically by Kuberas and barbarians.
Determining the right model of democracy for India There is no fixed structure of a democracy. The Swiss model has evolved to take into account the linguistic and cultural diversity as well as the geographical terrain of the region. Other variations may be designed to suit India's unique linguistic, religious, cultural and geographic diversity. Like the Swiss model, we must have a system where every party which secures even five per cent of votes must have a voice in the legislature and executive, so that no party or vote validly cast shall be futile. Perhaps a world research body should invent a method by which every adult has a voice in decision-making, while maintaining a party system for the sake of stability in governance.
(Justice V.R. Krishna Iyer is a former Supreme Court judge.)