What first-past-the-post means for India, how proportional representation would have looked, and how the choice is not simple.

After every general election, a howl of protest goes up, usually from the losing side, against India’s first-past-the-post (FPTP) system. Right at the start I’d like to make it clear that the BJP’s win – winning every third vote cast in this country, and a voteshare over 38% if you count its allies – does not strike me as the key moment to be having this discussion. The years 2004, when the Congress came to power with 26.5% of the vote, and 1999 when the BJP came to power despite getting a voteshare five percentage points lower than that of the Congress, were bigger problems. Nor do I agree with this ToI story that says that this is the lowest voteshare that has propelled a single party into the majority. The previous examples come from before the 90s, when the aggregate voteshare of regional parties first hit the 50% mark, as politicial scientist Milan Vaishnav has shown.

That disclaimer out of the way, the problems with the FPTP are real, and an alternative is worth debating. There are many different types of proportional representation (PR) systems. From the advocacy group FairVote, here’s an interactive map of electoral systems across the world. First of all, parties can have open lists – in which voters rank their preferred candidate from a party’s list of candidates – or closed lists for their own candidates. Then, elections can involve voters ranking candidates of different parties, as in Australia, and 2nd and 3rd place preferences also count towards a party’s total tally.

It’s a bit hard to retrospectively work out what this Indian election would have looked like with any of these systems, like say Australia’s. So I've been looking at the most intuitive type of PR, a system used to elect half of the German parliament. While half the Bundestag is elected directly, the other half comes through a system in which a party’s voteshare determines the number of seats it wins, with a cut-off at 5% of the voteshare. (Of course, it has its kinks; read more about the awesomely fearsome-sounding 'Überhangmandate' here.)

For the 2014 election, this is what the Indian parliament would have looked like using Germany’s PR system for the whole country.

Among the many things this would do is give a huge number of seats to smaller parties on account of the overhang I referred to above. Writing for Mint last year, Karthik Shashidhar explained how exactly this overhang would apply to smaller parties in the 15th Lok Sabha, giving a massive number at least one seat.

If we were to use Germany’s cut-off of 5% of the voteshare in 2014, we’d have just two parties – the Congress and the BJP. At 3% we’d have five more – the BSP, the Trinamool Congress, the Samajwadi Party, the ADMK and the CPM. At 2% we’d have three more – the TDP, the YSR Congress and the Aam Aadmi Party.

Finally, there’s a third way of thinking of proportional representation, which you’ll see in an article in the May 21 issue of the newspaper (I’ll update the link here when it’s out).

In his comparison of the different types of electoral systems in the Hindustan Times, Prashant Jha finds drawbacks with both FPTP and PR. While FPTP may not be representative enough, PR may put smaller and regional parties at an unfair disadvantage. Ultimately, India will have to first decide what it wants out of its elections and then choose the electoral system that works for those goals.