Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Proportional Representation for India

A recent class discussion in which @theneotorious @bakbakee and @zahra_aziz24 actively debated upon the alternative electoral systems for India, reminded me of a speech given by Mr. Ajit Abhyankar, secretary of the CPI (M) Pune District committee at a recent seminar held at ILS Law College Pune. Of all the different electoral reforms suggested that day, the model which he suggested that day seemed the most appropriate to me in the Indian context. Here’s how it goes -

First Past The Post is unfair and well past its usefulness

In India, at present, the candidate getting the highest share of the votes polled wins the particular election seat regardless of the fact that he may have less than 50% of the total votes polled.

Also it is to be noted that all the votes cast for the candidate that does not win do not count towards anything at all. This leads to a situation where it can happen that parties which poll around 5-10% in every constituency or even 10-15% across the state or nation can end up without any seats in the legislature at all. Also, since losing party votes don’t count, there are several so called safe seats where a particular party has a fixed voter base large enough to assure it of a victory and even if one party makes huge gains in the rest of the electorate it does not matter. For eg, if a party may win two successive elections with 40% of total votes in each but another losing party increasing its share from 5% to 37% doesn’t matter at all.

Hence, in our present system the competition is for a crucial 2-4% swing, in close constituencies which can deliver to a party a huge mandate in the assembly while all other seats and voters hardly matter.

A good example are the last two elections held in UP in 2007 and 2012. In both the elections, the winning party got more than 50% seats with less than 30% of the votes cast across the state. This can be seen from the chart below.
<Chart image from this kafila post>

After the 2012 elections, BSP and SP with a combined vote share of just 54%, control 76% of the seats in the Assembly. What this shows is that the worst losers are the voters of the smaller parties, who were the preference of 46% but still are severely under represented in the legislature.

Proportional Representation has its own issues

A simplistic solution is to change the system to one of proportional representation where each party gets same number proportion of seats in the legislature as its statewide/nationwide vote share. However, the major problem with this system is that it envisages the entire nation as one constituency where people simply vote for parties rather than individual candidates. This brings forth the major drawback that the common man won’t know who his local MP or MLA is. In an age where the political class is already seen as unaccountable, removing the linkage between the legislator and a particular geographical area as a constituency is rightly seen as disastrous.

Mixed Member Proportional Representation – A NEW IDEA!

In 1950 population of India was less than 50 crores and the Constitution drafters provided for maximum of 550 members in the House of the People (Lok Sabha(LS)). With population now more than 110 crores, there is a legitimate case for expansion of the legislature and that’s what a mixed member PR system would do.

Mixed member PR is a system where we can keep first past the post system while introducing Proportional Representation as well!

Let’s assume that there are 550 LS constituencies right now, with each constituency sending one elected candidate to the Lok Sabha. This shall remain the same. But there shall be 550 more seats which are allocated based upon the national vote share of the various parties. All 1100 members would have equal voting rights.

The system has the benefit of simplicity because, the voters shall have no learning curve. The system used to elect the representatives for the 550 geographical constituencies shall remain the same. The 550 proportional representation seats shall be allocated based upon the total vote share of various parties across all the constituencies in India.

For eg. the seats in a hypothetical poll shall be allocated as seen in the table below -


National Vote Share

Geographical Seats Won

Proportional Representation Seats

Total Seats in Lok Sabha

Party A

35 %


(49% of 550)


(35% of 550)


Party B



(30% of 550)


(32% of 550)


Party C



(21% of 550)


(23% of 550)


Party D



( 0% of 550)


(5% of 550)


Party E



( 0% of 550)


(4% of 550)


Thus, if in an election parties D and E are the choice of 10% of the voters spread thinly across India, without enough concentration in any constituency to win it outright, these parties shall also get atleast some representation in the Parliament and party A which would have ended up with 49% of total seats despite having only 35% vote share shall have its total seat percentage slightly reduced since it shall get only 35% of the PR seats.

The individuals occupying the PR seats can be based on a Party List system. Each party shall submit a list of 550 names and if it gets X number of PR seats, the top X persons in the list shall be the party’s MPs for the PR seats. The parties could use this to send to the Parliament technocrats or others who are considered to be worthy but lacking personal charisma to win most votes in a fixed geographical constituency.

I find this system most well suited because it can make the playing field fairer for the smaller parties without drastically changing the presently existing electoral process as understood by the common man. There are undoubtedly systems such as Single Transferable Vote which are even better and I would love to hear more about it from @theneotorious but I fear that these shall be too difficult to implement since they shall involve 100 crore voters trying to wrap their minds around a completely new system.

Do comment and let me know what you think of this!

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