Archive for February, 2012


February 17, 2012


L V Nagarajan

Democracy is any form of governance in which all the subjects can directly (or indirectly) participate in the decision-making process. It may be government of a country or just a small association like housing societies. Housing societies, for example, have only a few members and it is fairly easy to involve every member in the decision process and make the process more meaningful by even educating them on the subject matter. This may be termed as Direct Democracy. Larger the number of members, even a housing society, needs a managing committee with representatives selected through an election or a consensus. This may be termed as Representative Democracy. Larger the numbers of citizens, greater are the difficulties on the implementation of a direct democracy, especially in all the wings of a national government such as legislature, judiciary and executive. Representative democracy is a form of governance by the people through elected representatives. This is the most common system found in today’s democratic states. These representatives are elected by the people for a typical duration of four or five years. During this period they are supposed to represent the people who elected him, in all governmental process. But none of the democracies in the world has made this obligatory on the representative. Once he is elected, he is simply left on his own for the whole tenure. A representative is usually proposed as an electoral candidate by a political party and once he wins, he is expected to be more loyal to his party than people who elected him. This loyalty to the party is very well ensured in some democracies by enactment of anti-defection laws and the like. But, what about loyalty to his electors? At least some democracies do care. To ensure real democracy and to give voice to the people during the tenure of a not-so-loyal representative(s), these democracies allow three forms of political actions. They are known as Initiative, Referendum and Recall.  In political science, the initiative (also known as popular or citizen’s initiative) provides a means by which a petition signed by a certain minimum number of registered voters can force a public vote (plebiscite) on a proposed statute, constitutional amendment, charter amendment or ordinance, or, in its minimal form, to simply oblige the executive or legislative bodies to consider the subject by submitting it to the order of the day. A referendum is a direct vote in which an entire electorate is asked to either accept or reject a particular proposal. This may be the adoption of a new constitution, a constitutional amendment, a law, or simply a specific government policy. A recall is a procedure by which voters can remove an elected official from office through a direct vote (plebiscite), initiated when sufficient voters sign a petition. (ref: Wikipedia).

Even without these forms of political actions namely Initiative, Referendum and Recall, the ‘representative democracy’ has found overall acceptance among citizens, political analysts and politicians in many countries. However, there are continuous attempts by civil societies and citizens’ groups, to improve this election process, to get the same closer to real democracy and to ensure higher empowerment of citizens. One of the major deficiencies of current electoral system in many countries is that there is no guarantee that the elected representatives have a majority mandate from his electors. This is highly apparent in a multi-party democracy, where the winner gets only about 40% votes. Though higher than his opponents individually, it is lower than the 60% obtained by the combined opposition. In some democracies, to ensure that the winner gets a real majority mandate, elections to key positions are held in several rounds to eliminate all other candidates except the top two. Repeated rounds of elections for every constituency will be impractical and also be highly expensive. Neither can we force a two party system on any state, as, by itself, it is un-democratic. On further review, even in a two party system, a real mandate, though more probable, cannot be ensured. It is possible that a party with lower percentage of popular votes may win more number of constituencies to form a government. This has happened even in several advanced democracies in the world.

Proportional Representation based on popular votes is the usual solution proposed by many. A simple proportional representation (PR) system, which elects representatives based on party-list of candidates, seems to be less of a democracy, as the candidates are totally decided by the political parties and they are even less accountable to the electors. But several improvements have been done to this system to make this more democratic and these modified PR systems have been adopted in many European countries, New Zealand, South Africa and Australia. (For a very good description of how these systems work, please refer to:

To illustrate my point about the two-party democracy and its inadequacies, let us consider the following extreme scenarios. The only two parties, say, the Greens Party and Saffron Party, have popular votes of 51% and 49% respectively, overall in a total of 100 constituencies of a State. In an extreme case-A, let us consider Greens have 100% of support in 51 constituencies and Saffron have 100% of support in the remaining 49 constituencies. Greens will form government with a majority of 51 seats. It is fair enough, but not desirable, because the state is split vertically. In the extreme case-B, let us consider Greens and Saffron have perfectly uniform support of 51% and 49% individually in all the 100 constituencies. Greens will now form government with 100% victory. Saffron will be considered to have been rejected by the people. Here again, the state stands divided, horizontally, shall we say. Luckily, in a diverse population, the supports for Greens and Saffron are neither like case-A, nor like case-B. Even under such conditions, case-C throws up a paradox. Here we consider Saffron to have 55% vote in 60 constituencies and 40% in the remaining 40, amounting to 49% vote overall. Consequently, Greens will have 45% vote in the above 60 constituencies and 60% in the remaining 40, amounting to their overall vote share of 51%. Now Saffron, with 49% vote-share, will form the government with a massive majority of 60 seats, and Greens, with 51% vote-share, will be considered routed in the elections. Here comes the moral of the story. To avoid such a situation every party will withdraw their efforts from places where they already have major support and concentrate on where they are weak. While in one sense it is good for democracy, it may also lead to ‘vote-bank’ politics and appeasement of a few constituencies.

Hence we may conclude that a two-party system is not as great a solution, and at the same time multi party system is not as bad, as both of them are made out to be. The fault is in the electoral system. While it will be too drastic a change for any large country like India to adopt any of the existing PR (Proportional Representation) systems, some kind of proportional representation will have to be adopted early to avoid such problems as party misrepresentation, and the under-representation of political minorities, racial minorities, and women. As an Indian voter I suggest, the following simple changes in the electoral system initially for legislatures and parliament.

As of now members of Rajya Sabha (Council of States) are elected by elected representatives of legislatures, who themselves are elected by a miss-represented majority vote of the citizens. The Rajya Sabha consists of 233 elected members. The quota of members for each state is determined based on population of each state. The elected members of the respective state legislative assemblies elect their quotas of Rajya Sabha members on the basis of first transferable vote. Most of the time the parties know exactly how many of their own nominees can be elected by them and they nominate as many and get them elected by issuing a whip to their legislators. Occasionally they nominate one or two extra persons, to garner the possibility of obtaining the splinter votes of smaller parties who have no sufficient strength to get there own men elected.  Hence it will be fair to say that even these 233 elected members of Rajya Sabha, (RS), are mostly nominated by political parties and their election process is a mere formality. In the present system where a third of the members of RS retire every two years, the RS elections could happen twice or thrice during the tenure of a state assembly. Some times it may occur at a point when a state assembly tenure is about to be completed before a new general elections. It is possible that after the new elections the composition of parties in the new assembly could be vastly different, though the comparative percentage votes polled by them may not be as vastly different. This situation is particularly true in a multi party democracy.

Here is where my suggestion comes in. To get a fair representation, at least in the Rajya Sabha, we may decide on the quota of members for each political party based on amount of popular votes polled by them in the most recent assembly elections. For instance if we take the case of Tamil Nadu, it has a quota of 18 elected members in Rajya Sabha. When a third of them, i.e., 6 members retire, as per the present (2012) strength of parties, the assembly will elect 4 members of ADMK, 1 member of DMDK with the help of others, 1 member of DMK with the help of others. Their percentages of votes polled in the recent 2011 assembly election are respectively, 38.4, 7.9 and 22.4. But the Congress Party which obtained 9.3% votes does not get a Rajya Sabha seat. As per the proportional representation system, the allocation of these 6 seats will be: ADMK-3, DMK-2, and Congress–1. The parties will straightaway nominate their members without any election per se. If Tamil Nadu’s full quota of 18 seats is allocated this way, it will be as: ADMK – 8, DMK-5, Congress-2, DMDK-2, and PMK-1.  This reflects the will of the people more evenly in spite of the electoral alliances. In most of the matters Lok Sabha has overriding powers over Rajya Sabha, and hence, this higher degree of split membership will not hamper the present way of functioning of the government. Even as of now the ruling congress party has only 71 seats in Rajya Sabha, less than a third of total strength. BJP has 51 seats. There are 25 more political parties having seats varying from 1 to 13.

To find a similar way of proportional representation at the state level, we should make it constitutionally obligatory for the states to have legislative councils. As of now only six states have legislative councils (J&K, UP, Bihar, Maharashtra, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh). The upper house or the legislative council has limited legislative powers, and was primarily intended for consultations and can not hold up legislation passed by the legislative assembly for more than a few months. The Legislative Assembly is composed of members directly elected from individual constituencies. Whereas the Legislative Council consists of members indirectly elected: by members of the Lower House, by nomination of the State government, and by elections from specially designated teachers’ and graduates’ constituencies. Alternately, member-ship to the legislative council may be based on the percentage of popular votes polled by the parties in the most recent assembly elections. Exact mechanism of allocating these seats and the process of election/selection can be decided upon after obtaining some experience with the similar process for the Rajya Sabha as suggested earlier.

Apart from obtaining an equitable representation for all political parties and minorities, this system will have many long term advantages. All parties will try to have a broad based support instead of a localised support, because even in regions where they lose the elections, the votes obtained by them has still some value in boosting their percentage of popular votes. Voters also will be encouraged to vote for a party even if their candidate is likely to lose in a particular constituency. To be considered for proportional representation, we may stipulate, a party should contest a minimum number of seats and in them it should obtain a minimum percentage of votes.