The need to go beyond anglophone models

The main point of a democracy is to enable the maximum number of citizens to be and feel represented

Updated - February 17, 2019 01:03 pm IST

Published - February 17, 2019 12:15 am IST

GUWAHATI, ASSAM, 11/04/2016: Women voters waiting in queue to cast their votes for the second phase of Assam Assembly election in Guwahati on April 11, 2016.
Photo: Ritu Raj Konwar

GUWAHATI, ASSAM, 11/04/2016: Women voters waiting in queue to cast their votes for the second phase of Assam Assembly election in Guwahati on April 11, 2016. Photo: Ritu Raj Konwar

The controversy rages in intellectual and society circles of India: do we need to replace the model of democracy that we have with the presidential model? It is a sad controversy, because it underlines the fact that the Indian thinking classes can seldom think beyond the U.K. and U.S. models. The fact remains that neither the U.K.-inspired prime ministerial model nor the U.S.-inspired presidential model pass muster. They both fail for the same reason: they do not allow the majority to have a voice. This, by definition, is a fault that any democracy cannot overlook.

Lack of representation

In India, some people opposed to the BJP have started promoting the idea of a U.S.-based presidential system. One of the reasons is that the U.K.-inspired winner-takes-all model basically ensures that the majority of votes is lost. These reformers are motivated by the fact that even though the BJP won only 31% of the votes in the 2014 general election, it obtained a clear majority in the Lok Sabha. The NDA won 38.5% of the votes. This indicates that 61.5% of the votes that were cast were for parties that were not part of the NDA. The 38.5% figure appears even lower when one realises that the overall turnout in the election was 66.38%.

But this was nothing unusual. In 2009, the Congress-led UPA came to power with the Congress winning only 28.55% of the votes against the BJP’s 18.80%. If we consider the alliances, then too the majority of voters had voted for other parties than the UPA that came to power.

What this means is that the majority of votes cast in the last two general elections in India have been cast against the coalition or the party that came to power. This is worrying. And it has to do with the British model of ‘winner takes all’. While this model might or might not work in Britain, it is particularly problematic in India, which is a much larger nation with far more variety and differences. The fact that more than 60% of the votes cast in India in recent years are habitually disregarded is a very serious problem. It adds to feelings of resentment and lack of representation in many regions and sections of society.

To this extent, critique of the prime ministerial system is justified. But is the U.S.-inspired presidential system the solution? Let us look at the last presidential election in the U.S. It is widely known that Hillary Clinton won 48.2% of the votes cast, while Donald Trump won only 46.1%. But Mr. Trump is today the U.S. President. If you factor in the election of senators, once again you have a scenario where the majority of voters do not find appropriate representation.

Obviously, the problem of a majority of votes being lost is bigger under the U.K.-style winner-takes-all prime ministerial system, but the U.S.-style presidential system does not resolve the issue. Once again, the majority is not represented — and democracy is all about representation of the majority.

I think this problem of the majority of votes being wasted is more of an issue in a country like India, which has far more economic, cultural and ethnic diversity than either the U.K. or the U.S. To feel largely unrepresented in India is a greater problem than to feel largely unrepresented in those countries where economic, regional and even cultural gaps are smaller. But in any case, it is a major problem in any democracy.

Proportional representation

Which means we return to my original complaint: that the Indian thinking classes cannot think beyond the U.K. and U.S. models. Surely, there are other options? For example, many developed European nations work with very different models, most of which ensure proportional representation. Here you do not have a winner-takes-all U.K. model or a slanted U.S. electoral college model. Instead, political parties, with a given cut-off limit, are represented in Parliament largely on the basis of the percentage of votes that they win. (Or, as in France’s more problematic presidential model, there is at least a narrowing down of the choice over successive rounds of voting.)

It is not that difficult to allot a number of seats to a percentage of votes. For instance, 3% of the votes won can mean 5 or 10 or 12 seats. And this multiplies with every 3%. The only thing it requires is a graded list of politicians published by a political party in advance, so that when a party wins, say, five seats, the first five candidates listed by the party enter Parliament.

One advantage of this system is a reduction of the ‘celebrity’ factor, though countries like Denmark also allow for the personal popularity of individual politicians to be rewarded. I don’t see why a reworking of such options would not be far better that either the U.K.- or U.S.-inspired ‘anglophone’ models. After all, the main point of a democracy is to enable the maximum number of citizens to be and feel represented.

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