Defections And Proportional Representation

By Armando S. Pereira
Published May 28th 2003 in Oherlad (India)

Electoral laws need a second look and require drastic changes to ensure that unfair methods are not adopted by candidates or party setting them up for an election. The first reform necessary in our system of elections to the Central and State legislatures is to replace the first-past-the-post system which we have today by proportional representation (PR). The existing system of elections, i.e. single-member constituency, one elector one vote, and the election by simple majority gives greater importance to the individual candidate than the political party. On the other side, elections are not an exercise in choice among various political party programmes. The so-called merits of the candidates assume a decisive role in elections. Elections become personality-oriented instead of being issue-oriented.

Another salient flaw in our present electoral system is that political parties, instead of selling their programmes and policies try to measure the constituency in terms of religions, caste or linguistic arithmetics and search for candidates who fit in that arithmetic. Consequently, the parties tend to be a collection of individuals, who can walk in or walk out of the party at their sweet convenience. Under the present electoral system, autonomy of politics in a developing society is not easy to achieve. If parties start with subordination to the social structure from the very beginning in the hope that they will be able to manipulate the system in such a way that primacy of political parties will emerge,this would seem to be an illusion. The existing electoral system helps in the maintenance of the superiority of the social structure over the functioning of the parties.

The present electoral system besides diluting party programme or ideology leads to all sorts of nepotism in the body politics. The candidate who wins on the basis of his ‘local qualifications’ keeps busy in bringing public resources for his con stituency. The voters and supporters think that the success of their candidate in elections should mean advantages for them and their constituency. In this sectional competitiveness, the party becomes secondary. This kind of individualism, not only corrupts the body politic, but also leads to the development of very loose loyalties in the party. Another great flaw of the present electoral system is that there is little relationship between the electoral performance of a party and its strength< BR>in the Parliament or the Assembly. An example of this is that the Congress party in several general elections of Parliament obtained more seats than the percentage of votes secured by it. This defect can be remedied by changing the electoral system.

Minorities should get due representation in Parliament, State assemblies and other representative and local bodies. Absence of representation of minorities would alienate them from the system. India is a multi-religious, multi-linguistic an d multi-ethnic society, and is a home for all sorts of minorities which are scattered throughout its length and breadth. These minorities should get their due representation which is not possible under the existing electoral system. The Indian elite adopted the present electoral system because of their contact with the British system, and also because of its simplicity for an illiterate voter. Any complex electoral system was considered unsuitable for the Indian situation. It was not reali sed that this system is not meant for complex Indian social situation. Any formidable minority,— religious or linguistic — can be a threat to a system if it is not allowed a share in the governance of the country. There is no equal suffrage where every single individual does not count for as much as any other single individual in the community. But it is not only the minority who suffer. Democracy, thus constituted, does not even attain its ostensible object, that of giving the powers of g overnment in all cases to the numerical majority. It does something different: it gives them to a majority of the majority; who may be, and often are, but a minority of the whole. All principles are most effectually tested by extremes cases. Suppose that in a country governed by equal and universal suffrage, there is a contested election in every constituency, and every election is carried by a small majority. The Parliament thus brought together represents little more than a bare majority of the people. The Parliament proceeds to legislate, and adopts important measures by a bare majority of itself. What guarantee is there that these measures accord with the wishes of the majority of the people? Nearly half the electors, having been outvoted at the hustings, had have no influence at all in the decision; and the whole of this may be, a majority of them probably are, hostile to measures, having voted against those by whom they have been carried. Of the remaining electors, ne arly half have chosen representatives who, by supposition voted against the measures. It is possible, therefore, and not at all improbable, that the opinion which has prevailed was agreeable only to a minority of the nation, though a majority of that portion of it whom the institutions of the country have elected into a ruling class. If democracy means the certain ascendency of the majority, there are no means to insuring that by allowing every individual figure to tell equally in the summ ing up, any minority left out, either purposely or by the play of the machinery, gives the power not to the majority, but to a minority in some other part of the scale.

Proportional representation (PR) with all its variations, is an attempt to secure a representative assembly reflecting, with more or less mathematical exactness, the various divisions in the electorate. The immediate gain for the Indian party system, if PR is adopted, will be the end of so-called ‘defections’ which has posed a serious threat to the stability of political parties. Further, the phenomenon of `independent’ candidates, with wavering loyalties, will come to an end. The strength of the Indian political system will depend on the strength of party system; and it is essential to opt for an electoral system which helps in the strengthening of the party system. Proportional representation with list system seems to be better than the prevailing simple-majority system.

Opponents of PR argue that it leads to multiplication of parties, accentuates splits and encourages oligarchical tendencies in parties which use the lists system as a handle to enforce the principles of superior-subordinate relationship in a party. In reply to such a reasoning, it may be stated that PR or any electoral system cannot accentuate social conflicts or results in the multiplicity of parties. Polarisation or depolarisation of party politics is not contingent upon the electoral system alone. Regarding oligarc hical trends in a party, PR is not wholly responsible for them. Even countries with simple-majority systems have well-organised and disciplined party systems.

After examining the impact of PR system, it is necessary to dilate on its impact on the governance of the country. PR is helpful in ensuring the representation of all social interests in the Parliament or assemblies. The charge that PR results into unstable governments is not tenable. Coalition governments in India have not come into existence because of PR, but with the opposite electoral system. Any electoral system can result into coalition governments. The difference which PR makes is that the coalitions are of parties and not of individual defectors, who have brought bad name to the coalition experience in India. It is easy for parties to coalesce than amorphous individuals or unattached members of legislatures. Some coalition governments remained unstable in the Indian States, not because of inter-party factiona lism and unprincipled support of Independent legislators. PR helps in securing better governance for the country because governments under it are party governments, and sizeable number of voters in the country know that their votes have brought these parties together. British politicians have held that PR must necessarily lead to coalition and, therefore, to weak governments. Most British parties maintain this view because it has so far suited their objectives and aims. But, in almost all other democratic systems of government of European countries the members of Parliament are elected through PR system and these governments function pretty well, avoiding the violent and harmful swings of policy that have characterised Britain in recent times.

Now, to sum up it can be pointed out that after five decades of functioning with universal adult franchise, the need for strengthening party organisation for the governance of the country should be clearly recognised. It should be also realized that minorities have to be brought in the system, otherwise they lose faith and pose a threat to the system. Diversity is the essence of India, and it should get representation in the corridors of power. A simple majority system cannot take care of minority representation. PR can achieve the twin objectives of involving minorities, hitherto largely unrepresented in the governance of the country and making parties play their fair, just and due role in the body politic of the country.