Flawed Democracy; Electoral system – FPTP or Proportional Representation

By Mayank Gandhi

My belief remains that incremental or cosmetic alterations in the system of elections are insufficient; there has to be a significant shift.

While ‘none of the above’ (NOTA) or the right to recall could have some impact, transformative reforms need to be addressed. For instance, there must be a serious debate about whether the existing model of first past the post (FPTP) can be replaced by proportional representation (PR). Let’s understand these terms:

PR is the idea that seats in Parliament should be allocated so that they are in proportion to the votes cast; FPTP, on the other hand, aligns itself with the rather simple principle that the candidate with the maximum number of votes wins.

Clearly, FPTP comes with its share of problems. For one, it disregards a sizeable number of votes. Think about it: if one candidate wins 3,50,000 votes and the other gets 3,50,001 votes, then there is little regard for 3,50,000 votes and voters.

Second, it encourages candidate-centred voting. The politician who gets just one more vote wields disproportionate power. Consequently, FPTP brings with it a desperation to win elections, using all means, fair or foul.

Last, parties win a disproportionate number of seats under FPTP, which is detrimental to the interests of a democracy. In 2014, the BJP swept to power with 28 seats (out of 543), i.e., 52 per cent of seats with only 31.3 per cent of the votes.

In 2004, the Congress came to power with just 26.5 per cent of the votes; and most ironically in 1999, the BJP came to power despite getting a vote share five percentage points lower than that of the Congress. This is an insult to the Indian voter and detrimental to a democracy.

Now, unlike FPTP, Proportional Representation (now adopted by over 90 democracies in the world) recognizes every vote. In multi-lingual, multi-religious countries like India, it is sensitive to diversity, ensuring that all sections are fairly represented in the election.

It has the potential to reduce the impact of money, caste and communal politics, as candidates cease having constituencies where they can purchase votes. Last, parties gain seats in proportion to the number of votes cast for them.

Let’s consider this through a hypothetical example. Let us assume that the Congress, the BJP, the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), and the Trinamool Congress stand for elections. Depending on the number of seats they contest, they make a list of their own candidates, all selected democratically by the party members.

Voters will vote for a party, and based on the percentage of votes gathered, candidates are selected on a priority basis for Parliament.

In the 16th Lok Sabha elections, let’s compare how parties were represented under the FPTP model, and how Parliament would have looked if PR had been adopted.

This is not to say that PR does not come with its complications and limitations. But a debate regarding its merits and demerits will ensure that we, as a nation, will arrive at the best possible set of electoral practices.

Similar debates need to be had about the advantages of having a presidential form of government as against the Westminster model, and the direct election of the chief minister by the
general public rather than by the elected MLAs.

But the most important reform that has to be undertaken is the democratization of all political parties. Internal elections supervised by the Election Commission should be compulsory. The account details and the sources of funds should be made available.