The electoral system in its current avatar is not serving India’s democracy

In the next few weeks the gigantic exercise of conducting elections in India will be over. The nation will pat itself on the back for being crowned yet again the world’s greatest functional democracy while most people will get back to their struggle for survival. The long dance of democracy would come to an end, leaving the elected representatives to do the business of recovering their huge investments. A fortune is spent to conduct elections in India, rivalled only by the United States (it is said that in this election, Indian politicians would spend upwards of $5 billion as against $7 billion spent in the 2012 U.S. presidential election). All kinds of intrigues and foul play come into motion for acquiring money to fight elections. By any logic, these amounts can only be raised through plutocracy and crime. That being closer to the truth, one wonders whether this process of election needs to be probed for being at the centre of what ails India.

Trajectory of corruption

In a liberal framework, direct democracy is not possible. Elections are meant to get peoples’ representatives to operationalise democracy. Peoples’ choices however are restricted to the candidates put up by political parties, and to some independents, most of whom contest to help the electoral arithmetic of the main political parties as dummy candidates. This results in the same set of people getting elected election after election without any evidence of performance. The entire process has a kind of barrier of entry. For instance, the official expenditure allowed for a candidate for the Lok Sabha election is Rs.70 lakh that only mainstream political parties can afford. The actual investment is several times more. If this is the quantum of risk capital one invests in elections, there should be a theoretical return on this investment. Since there is none, it inevitably manifests itself as growing corruption. This has turned politics into a big ticket business with unrivalled returns. The elected leader becomes a feudal lord and the constituency his fiefdom, fortified by musclemen and money power.

The data on politicians who participate in elections are in the public domain, thanks to the Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR), that picks it up from their affidavits filed with the Election Commission and presents them in a manner that is comprehensible. These self-sworn data, likely to be a gross understatement, nonetheless reveal the rapidly growing number of crorepatis among these representatives. In the 15th Lok Sabha election, there were 1,249 crorepati candidates, of whom over 300 reached Parliament. The crime record closely correlates with their riches, and both exist across parties. The parliamentarians with criminal cases belonging to the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party, the two main political parties, were 24 and 29 in 2004 respectively, which went up to 44 each in 2009. These are the so-called representatives of the people, a vast majority of whom live off Rs.20 a day!

More interesting is the incredible growth of their wealth before every election. The analysis by ADR and National Election Watch (NEW) has found that the wealth of 304 re-contesting MPs had grown by 289 per cent. These rates are almost unheard of even in the corporate world. A person of average calibre, ostensibly in service of poor people, outbeats the best of fund managers. In an ordinary case, such evidence would alarm the income tax and anti-corruption authorities; but the political connections of these worthies provide them immunity from such mundane risks. There are no prizes for guessing the sources of wealth here when it is known that the entire machinery works for corporate houses and other moneybags in the name of the people.

Method of election

When India became independent, the biggest challenge the new rulers faced was in fulfilling the aspirations of the people — the aspirations they helped build during the freedom struggle. These were further amplified by developments such as the dazzling progress made by the post-revolution USSR, the welfarist ethos of the post-War world, and the ongoing revolution in neighbouring China. The communal flare-up in the wake of the transfer of power, the integration of nearly 600 political fragments in the form of princely states within India, the communist-led armed struggles in certain pockets in the country, and the awakening of the lower castes collectively posed a formidable challenge to the new rulers. The republican constitution they created reflected these aspirations. However in real terms, the Congress Party that assumed the reins of power, represented the interests of the bourgeoisie and had to skilfully promote them. This tension between the need to appear addressing peoples’ aspirations — but in reality furthering the interests of capital — necessarily showed up in a series of its deceitful acts. Launching Five-Year Plans to display socialist orientation but clandestinely adopting the Bombay Plan created by the then eight top capitalists of the country, or to initiate land reforms but ensuring that they remained throttled so as to create a class of rich farmers as an ally in the vast countryside, or to push the Green Revolution to spread capitalist relations in countryside in the name of removing hunger, are just a few examples. It was politically imperative to adopt such a method for operating democracy to ensure that they remained in full control of power.

The First-Past-the-Post (FPTP) type of election system (in which the winner is the person with most votes) was chosen as a means to fortify the political power of the ruling classes. This system as such was inherited from the colonial regime like all other former colonies of the British Empire. But there was nothing that could have prevented India to discard it for the one better suited to its specific situation. The rulers ignored these considerations and rather focussed on their own interests which would be best served by this system. Most of the evils that we find ourselves engulfed in today stem from the FPTP system. A single winner in elections with such extraordinarily diverse polity could not come without the support of the majority party. It followed that most interest groups would be forced to come to terms with the majority party, paving ways for co-option and other manipulations. The diversity of interests in the country may still throw up many parties, which could only aggravate the inherently competitive FPTP elections. That in turn would only mean increasingly huge expenditure, to be met by big businesses, and the use of existing fault lines like caste, community and religion. It necessarily evolved into an oligopolistic power structure of all ruling classes, irrespective of parties, fortified by multilayered defences such as the police and the military.

Another model

Was there no alternative to FPTP? The diverse polity would point to a different model of election, say, the Proportional Representation (PR) system, which is followed in most European democracies and many others that have had far superior democratic records. While there are many practical variants of the PR system, essentially it entails voting for parties or social groups (rather than for individuals), that get representation in proportion to their share of votes. For example, Dalits in India are 17 per cent but being in the minority in every constituency, one of them would never get elected independently in the FPTP system; not even from the so-called reserved constituencies. The PR system would assure them their share in Parliament and legislatures and may even create a centripetal force to expand their constituency. What is euphemistically called bahujan today was possible to be created through this process. The social identities would make way for class consciousness and impart class orientation to the entire politics. There would be no cut-throat competition as every interest group would be reasonably assured of its share of representation. The competition would then shift to the ring of Parliament to shape the policies in the interests of the majority of the people. In the FPTP system, once the elections are over, there is no motivation for debate in Parliament on policy content. The most material policies of the government that impacted people (such as the imposition of Emergency and the neoliberal economic reforms) were never discussed in Parliament.

The theoretical fallacy in the FPTP elections that the elected representatives hardly enjoy consent of even half the voters is overcome in the PR system that ensures most interest groups their due share of representation. The intense competition of the FPTP elections leading to huge resource expenditure and consequent rise of corruption would also be eliminated in the PR system. Most importantly, in the context of India, it would curb the vile motives in the ruling classes to divide people on the lines of caste and community.

For instance, there would not be any need for the reserved constituencies for Dalits and hence even the Dalit tag, thereby eliminating the salience of castes from politics. Although, no system may prevent the black sheep being black, the PR system would surely eliminate the structural spaces by promising them their dues. Dalits lamented for years the Gandhian blackmail in the Poona Pact but did not understand that it was pivoted on the FPTP system. It would lose its relevance in the PR system. The same could even be extended to any need of preserving caste identities and vexatious problems they have created.

Indeed, India would hugely gain. But then, what will happen to the ruling class?

(Anand Teltumbde is a civil rights activist with Committee for Protection of Democratic Rights, Mumbai.)

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