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HARIHAR BHATTACHARYYA | 12 JULY, 2016

Needed, Reforms in Indian Democracy!


Post-Brexit has created an infectious enthusiasm amongst Indian opinion makers,about introducing issued-based referendum without delay. Oblivious of the political turmoil in Britain itself following Brexit, Indians here are debating on the merits and demerits of having referendum on important issues.

Referendum in the land of parliamentary sovereignty is like a bull in a China shop. It has not settled anything, but unsettled much. It has got a divided Parliament and a divided leadership in both the Conservative and the Labour Parties. As the post-poll popular reactions had it, the citizens were not fully aware of what they were doing in voting for or against Brexit (the actual distinction was between ‘Brexit’ and ‘Remain’ voters.)

The actual political accounting of votes has proved that only about 35 per cent voters decided on such a very important and major issue whose effect was not calculable.

The Swiss example is very relevant here, as the political system is famously known for its direct democratic institutions and practices. In the Swiss Constitution (2000) under Articles (136-41) voting, launching and signing popular initiate and referenda are a political right of the Swiss citizens.

The citizens have such rights in respect of revising the whole Constitution or the part thereof (by ‘mandatory referendum’) by the method of collecting 100,000 (one lakh) signatures to be put to popular vote for securing a majority. Optional referendum can be organized by collecting 50,000 signatures of the voters, or eight Swiss Cantons (federal units) in respect of some federal statutes or decrees and or the Swiss entry into some international organizations such as the EU or the European Economic Area.

Those who dream of the Swiss system as the ideal situation for democracy are to be forewarned. The Swiss system is a like a Chinese matchbox: many democratic institutions at many layers here have been combined. From majoritarian rule via proportional and consociational systems to direct democratic institutions, all have been put together in a country of 8.37 million people.

Has it made the citizens happier? Is it the ideal democracy to live in? The self-critical Swiss are painfully aware of its pitfalls and limitations: the uncertainty it brings about; its democratic deficit; and above all its over-taxing of the citizens. Swiss scholars (Steinberg, for instance) claim this has made the whole system ‘blocked’ and resistant to rapid changes out there.

One estimate from the early 1970s shows that for one decade the Swiss citizenry was paying out at the rate of a quarter of a million Swiss Franc per annum to allow an average of 40 per cent of their number to say ‘Yay’ or ‘Nay’. Mind you, only about 60 per cent of those who live in Switzerland are eligible voters (the rest being foreign workers having no right to vote.)

From the account of the 1990s, the average voter turnout was 45.6 per cent. From 1962 to 1972, the average voter turnout at referendums was 40 per cent. So, only about 12 per cent of total population decides on such very important national and international matters. The Swiss system therefore contains important lessons for us not for jumping to embrace their system of referendum, but for thinking twice before jumping.

What we need in India now is not referendum but a democracy that reflects the real votes of the real voters. Our democracy is defective and very deficient even procedurally. Substantively, its failures are appalling by the simple magnitude of inequalities across the social and economic scales.

Since 1950 when the Constitution of India was inaugurated we found that a majoritarian democratic system had been designed for us by our rulers. This system allows very little power sharing among the stakeholders, which have avoided many unhealthy confrontation and violence before, during and after the elections. Those who win take all; those defeated feel deprived and excluded.

On the face of it, a popular verdict decided, if really, by the majority is democratic enough. But that is not true enough. The BJP secured a huge parliamentary majority (more than half the seats) in the current Lok Sabha when it received only 31 percent popular vote. Akhilesh Yadav, the current Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh, India’s largest state, is in the throne on the basis of some 31.5 % popular vote (seats obtained was 224 out of 377). In West Bengal, in the just concluded State Assembly elections, the TMC got 211 out of 294 seats with 44. 9 per cent while Left Front-Congress combine got only 76 seats with a popular vote share of 34.39 per cent.

In numbers of votes polled between the TMC and the Left-Congress combine, the difference was of some 30 lakh more votes polled by the TMC than that of the Left-Congress combine of the total voters of some 60 million. In the State Assembly election in West Bengal, 2011, the picture was more anomalous: TMC got 184 seats (38.92% popular vote) while the Left Front got around 40 per cent popular votes but only 60 seats.

A proportional representation would have produced genuine power sharing between the parties and would have avoided much tensions giving birth to a space for consensus. But that was not to be.

Such anomalies could be added ad infinitum. This difference between vote share and seats share is often discussed, but mostly taken for granted. That the vote share (which is the real index of popular verdict) is not translated into seat share is due to the operation of a different political principle at work at the constituency level.

The principle is grossly undemocratic. It is called SMSP, i.e., single member simple plurality. It is resolves into what is called ‘first past the post’ that declares the victor at this level.

It means that a candidate does not necessarily have to secure a majority of all votes polled in a constituency; if her/his vote share turns out to be largest of all the candidates, she or he gets elected.

Thus, hypothetically, a candidate can get herself/himself elected by winning even about 10-15 per cent votes, if that is the largest number in a multi-party contest at the constituency level.

At the national level, for Lok Sabha elections in 2009 only 120 MPs won 50% or more votes in their constituencies. In 2014 Lok Sabha elections, things have improved a bit: 201 (37%) out of 543 got 50% votes in their constituencies. Procedurally, Indian democracy at the national level is now 37% democracy. In India, the legislative majority at all levels is based on minorities of votes shares due to a majoritarian system at the top and the SMSP (or FPTP) at the bottom.

The citizens foot all bills for democracy at all levels of our political system: national, state and local. In 2014 Lok Sabha elections, some 1114 crore of Indian rupees were spent from out of the state exchequer; the NDTV put the total figures of INR 30000.00 crore taking all the expenditures incurred by the government, political parties and the candidates together!

Going by the simple majority of votes polled, in the current Lok Sabha, as many as 342 MPs could be taken not to have been elected because they received less than 50% per votes at their constituencies. Consider the money bestowed on the MPs: MPLAD funds; their daily allowance; almost free meal at the Parliament canteen; the other perks and facilities extended to them and the lifelong sumptuous pension even if they are rejected by the people next time (or should we say second time?).

The citizens foot such bills.

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