India, the world’s most populous democracy, intricately weaves its political narrative through the lens of the First-Past-the-Post (FPTP) electoral system. But the recent state elections illuminate both its strengths and potential pitfalls, setting the stage for challenging Lok Sabha polls for the opposition
By Ranjit Bhushan
- The PR versus FPTP debate continues. Calls for change intensify as the BJP-led government’s 2019 victory relied on a 38% vote share
- In 1984, Congress won a record 414 Lok Sabha seats with just 42.69% of votes, far below the 50% average
- The FPTP system hinders mass organization representation in Parliament, turning it into a house primarily serving wealthy elite
- Globally, under 50 nations, including India, retain the First-Past-The-Post system, a legacy from British colonial rule, with the UK included
INDIA, the world’s largest democracy, with over 900 million voters continues with many British legacies, among the most important of them being the First-Past-the-Post (FPTP) electoral system, otherwise known as simple majority, where a candidate with the greatest number of votes from a constituency, wins the seat.
The current beneficiary of this method of voting a party in office is the ruling BJP, which for a better part of the last seven decades since Independence, was largely confined to the political sidelines. Not any longer. For the Congress, it can be no more than petty consolation that it broke new ground and won Telangana and that the five Assembly contests garnered it more votes overall than it did for the BJP, which emerged triumphant in the crucial Hindi belt in the recently-concluded elections.
The Congress got 9.5 lakh votes more than the BJP, with a total of 4,90,77,907 votes, compared to the BJP’s 4,81,33,463 votes. However, the Congress only won one state (Telangana) that has 17 Lok Sabha seats, while the BJP secured the win in three states with a combined 65 Lok Sabha seats.
And therein lies the catch. Assembly seats may not always reflect Lok Sabha seats, but they do help to control the government and the bureaucracy. The key to electoral politics is to beat the nearest competitor even with a lower vote share, and the BJP has shown its skill in doing so in the vital and populous Hindi belt with the First-Past-the-Post system. The Congress suffered a big blow by losing three states ( Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh) – two of which it ruled – despite working hard to create a winning strategy. This may be a result of the First-Past-the-Post system, which was chosen by the Constituent Assembly in 1948-1949.
DEBATE ON PROPORTIONAL REPRESENTATION
The discussion about whether to use a Proportional Representation (PR) system instead of the First-Past-the-Post system is not a new one. People have good reasons for considering this change. For example, in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, the current BJP-led government got into power with only 38% of the votes (if you count the whole NDA alliance, it was close to 45%) of the 603.7 million votes that were polled. This means that 62% of Indian voters did not choose the BJP.
Before 2014, no political party had ever won a single-party majority with just 31% of the vote share. The previous record was held by the Congress in 1967 when they won 283 out of 520 seats with 40.8% of the total votes.
This is not a new situation. All the governments in India, including the first one led by Jawaharlal Nehru, didn’t come to power with the support of a majority of votes.
In fact, in 1984, the Congress won the largest number of Lok Sabha seats won by any single party – 414 – yet it got only 42.69% of votes, a long way away from the average of 50% of total votes polled, despite the pro-Congress sentiment in the country after Mrs Indira Gandhi’s assassination.
These lopsided results have triggered talk of introducing a change in the system – which needless to say, is easier said than done. Political economist Parakala Prabhakar, last year, advocated the adoption of an electoral system of Proportional Representation for the Indian Republic, which is gearing up for its 76th year of Independence. ‘’The Indian democracy is experiencing a slow death. Our economy is in doldrums, thanks to the weakening of the rupee. Secularism is in tatters as the country moves away from the cherished values enshrined in the Constitution preamble under the present dispensation at the Centre,” he said at a public meeting in Andhra Pradesh.
The Congress got 9.5 lakh votes more than the BJP, with a total of 4,90,77,907 votes, compared to the BJP’s 4,81,33,463 votes. However, the Congress only won one state (Telangana) that has 17 Lok Sabha seats, while the BJP secured the win in three states with a combined 65 Lok Sabha seats
In Prabhakar’s estimate, democracy had been vitiated under the present FPTP system, with money power ruling the roost. Some in the Left parties have called for implementation of the Indrajit Committee Report (1998) on electoral reforms, including state-funding of elections. The report had suggested that state funding would ensure a level playing field for poorer political parties and argued that such a move would be in public interest. It had also recommended that state funds should only be given to recognised national and State parties.
They argue that voters should also be empowered with the right to recall a non-performing MP or an MLA midway through the five-year term.
Under the present FPTP system, very few from the mass organisations are able to make it to Parliament, which has largely been turned into a House ‘‘of the rich, by the rich and for the rich’’.
PROPORTIONAL REPRESENTATION SYSTEM
The term “Proportional Representation” (PR) refers to various electoral systems where the distribution of seats closely matches the proportion of total votes for each party or candidate. It provides an alternative to electoral systems like First-Past-the-Post, which often lead to unequal outcomes favouring larger political groups.
In the Proportional Representation system, parties with a nationwide presence get more seats based on their overall vote share, promoting stability. It ensures that people without a strong voice in government under other systems have representation. This approach values every vote, allowing each voter to elect a representative reflecting their choice and opinion.
India is not new to proportional representation; the Rajya Sabha, the Upper House of Parliament, is elected using this system. Some experts, like T S Krishnamurthy, a former chief election commissioner, support proportional representation, considering the traditional first-past-the-post method outdated.
Implementing Proportional Representation could potentially make India’s democracy one of the best globally, as many stable democracies worldwide, including Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Germany, and others, have successfully used this system for over a century. At present globally, Less than 50 countries, including India, still use the First-Past-The-Post system, which largely inherited this system from British colonial rule, with the United Kingdom being one of them.
Supporters of the Proportional Representation (PR) electoral system emphasise several advantages:
Increased Opportunities for Minority Parties and Independents: Moving to Proportional Representation may provide minority parties and independent candidates with a better chance of winning seats in Parliament.
Addressing Unrepresentative Outcomes: The current First-Past-the-Post (FPTP) system is criticised as unrepresentative because candidates can be elected with a very small share of the votes, while all other votes in the constituency are essentially wasted.
Core Supporter Focus: PR encourages political parties to appeal to their core supporters rather than a small number of swing voters in marginal seats.
Fair Treatment for Minority Parties and Independents: PR is argued to deliver fairer treatment of minority parties and independent candidates.
Reduced Wasted Votes: Under PR, fewer votes are considered “wasted” as the preferences of more people are taken into account.
More Representative Choice: PR potentially offers greater and more-representative choices for voters.
Avoiding Absolute Majorities: PR rarely produces an absolute majority for one party. However, it could be argued that PR ensures continuity of government and requires greater consensus in policy-making.
ANTI-INCUMBENCY AND FPTP
In a recent column, journalist and author Prem Shankar Jha says “that the impact of the anti-incumbency factor is much greater in the FPTP than it is in Proportional Representation because it invariably magnifies the ratio of seats won by the largest party to the votes cast for it and correspondingly reduces it for all the remaining parties.’’
In the theoretical limiting case, where the vote is equally divided between all contending parties, an increase of even 0.1% in the vote share of one party will give it 100% of the seats. The seat-to-vote magnification then is close to infinite, he wrote.
Says analyst Sushil Sharma: “FPTP has one important advantage over Proportional Representation. The advantage is that the compression of seats in relation to votes gets more pronounced as the political parties get smaller. Over time, this forces the fringe parties to merge with their closest ideological neighbours in order to retain some say in policy making. This need for compromise discourages the adoption of ideological – as distinct from pragmatic – programmes of governance.”
CONSTITUENT ASSEMBLY’S DEBATE
So why did the Constitution framers choose FPTP? Even more crucial, are those historical reasons still relevant in today’s India?
Article 81 of the Indian Constitution stipulates for FPTP. The constituent assembly took up this provision for discussion on January 4, 1949.
In the Constituent Assembly, members like Kazi Syed Karimuddin, K.T. Shah, Mahboob Ali Baig strongly opposed the FPTP and made a case for adopting proportional representation. They sought to move an amendment to substitute FPTP with “system of proportional representation with multi-member constituencies by means of cumulative vote.” Karimuddin argued that FPTP created ‘tyranny of the majority’ and should be remedied through proportional representation.
Karimuddin believed that Proportional Representation is `‘profoundly democratic’’ as it secures representation of all voices of the society. Looking at historical foreign experiences, he highlighted how FPTP caused the religious minorities in Ireland to be disenfranchised and unrepresented.
Further, K T Shah supported Proportional Representation, saying that this system is a ‘greater reflection of popular will’ and will ensure a government that has diverse political voices.
Another member backing Proportional Representation was Mahboob Ali Baig Sahib Bahadur. He moved a resolution to provide for Lok Sabha members to be elected “in accordance with the system of Proportional Representation by means of a single transferable vote.”
Noting the Constitutional Assembly’s adoption of this system to elect the Rajya Sabha members should be extended to the Lok Sabha, he claimed that FPTP encourages domination by the majority political party and creates an environment of “repression and suppression” of the minority political views.
Constitutionalist M Ananthasayanam Ayyangar was not convinced by these demands. He offered two arguments against Proportional Representation. First, as certain constituencies have a large population, its implementation becomes impractical and administratively difficult. Second, he believed that this system was too ‘advanced’ for our nation, which had a poor literacy rate.
The final word came from Dr B R Ambedkar, who believed that Proportional Representation would not work in the Indian set up. He pointed out that Karimuddin’s amendment was fallible as it presupposed that Indian citizens were literate and could read numbers.
Before 2014, no political party had ever won a single-party majority with just 31% of the vote share. The previous record was held by the Congress in 1967 when they won 283 out of 520 seats with 40.8% of the total votes
The Father of the Indian Constitution went on to invoke the British Parliament’s Royal Commission Report of 1910, which examined Proportional Representation and simple majority systems. The report preferred the former, but the British Parliament refused to accept the recommendations. It believed that Proportional Representation threatened the stability of government.
Ambedkar found merit in this argument and was convinced that minorities’ interests were better safeguarded through reservation in Parliament than the system of Proportional Representation.
Nonetheless, the proponents of PR were sceptical of FPTP’s success in creating an inclusive government. They principally opposed it as they feared that it would create a majority culture where marginalised groups would go unrepresented. But Ayyangar and Ambedkar, members of the Constitution’s Drafting Committee, opposed it largely on policy matters. Their main objections were based on India’s poor literacy rate, logistical difficulties and protecting government stability.
In the end the assembly sided with Ambedkar and Ayyangar, and encoded FPTP in the Indian Constitution.
WHAT COULD HAPPEN IN 2024?
Given the BJP’s comprehensive assembly election victory, it would confirm what is common knowledge: as far as the 2024 parliamentary elections are concerned, the party remains firmly in pole position. This advantage is principally driven by Modi’s enduring popularity.
According to Morning Consult, a US-based business intelligence company that tracks the weekly approval ratings of more than 20 democratically elected world leaders, 78% of Indians surveyed in late November approved of Modi’s job performance. The Indian Prime Minister’s net approval (calculated as the share of respondents who approve of his performance minus those who disapprove) is a stunning +60.
Domestic opinion polls confirm that Modi’s popularity remains intact and that this continues to fuel his party’s dominance. The biannual Mood of the Nation poll from India Today has consistently shown as recently as August 2023, that the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) could handily capture a majority of seats in the Lok Sabha, even there is a reduction in numbers from its 2019 Lok Sabha tally, where the NDA alliance won 353 seats.
But despite the assembly poll triumph, it would be instructive to remember the limited predictive power of the recent state assembly polls. It would be shortsighted for sage analysts to conclude that these results mechanically predict how voters in these five states will behave in the 2024 general elections.
For instance, the Congress Party swept the December 2018 assembly elections in Chhattisgarh and bested the BJP in both Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan. Six months later in the Lok Sabha elections, the BJP dominated over the Congress Party in all three states.
Milan Vaishnav of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace highlights five issues that may determine the next Lok Sabha polls. “As the road to 2024 begins, five issues are worth watching: the waning predictive power of state elections, the challenge of opposition coordination, the battle for backward castes, the arms race of competitive welfarism, and the emergence of foreign policy as a mass issue,” he noted in a recent essay.
First, the opposition INDIA alliance must agree on a common platform that can oust the BJP. While more than half of the country voted against Modi in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, it now depends on the opposition alliance to offer an alternative vision for governance that sufficiently distinguishes it from the BJP.
Secondly, the INDIA bloc is leaderless, which places it at a distinct disadvantage when confronted by a larger-than-life leader like Modi.
Crucially, the opposition is yet to negotiate a seat-sharing agreement. If it is to truly fight as a unified front, INDIA’s constituent parties must voluntarily forego contesting seats they feel they “own” in order to make way for partners. That, as West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Bannerjee admitted this week, is a “tall order’’.
In many states, like Punjab, INDIA’s constituent parties like the Congress and the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) are bitter opponents. In West Bengal, the Congress Party and the Left Front have fought together to displace Mamata Banerjee of the Trinamool Congress (TMC), yet now they must join hands.
Even if alliance members agree to cooperate at this late stage, coalition arithmetic does not always make for sound coalition chemistry. Take the example of Uttar Pradesh in the 2019 elections. There, the two foremost regional parties—the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and the Samajwadi Party (SP), long at loggerheads—joined forces to keep the BJP out of power. Notwithstanding this grand coalition, the BJP alliance earned 51% of the vote and bagged 64 out of 80 Lok Sabha seats, while the BSP-SP alliance won 39% but won just 15 seats! Again, the FPTP factor clearly helped the BJP.
Implementing Proportional Representation could potentially make India’s democracy one of the best globally, as many stable democracies worldwide, including Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Germany, and others, have successfully used this system for over a century
Another critical factor shaping the 2024 fight is the impact of welfare schemes on voting behaviour. A former Chief Economic Adviser of India, Arvind Subramanian, has said that a critical pillar of the Modi government’s economic programme consists of what he has termed ‘new welfarism’, in which the government has ramped up investments in the public distribution of private goods such as gas cylinders, toilets, bank accounts, and electricity connections.
WELFARE, CASTE, AND POLITICS
Data from successive National Family Health Surveys (NFHS) demonstrates that access to a range of household goods has risen dramatically, with the rate of penetration rising significantly post-2014. This welfare push has been coupled with the government’s embrace of Direct Cash Transfers (DCT), which have funnelled government benefits directly into household bank accounts while cutting out leaky intermediaries.
Carnegie Endowment’s Suyash Rai has shown that the expansion in cash transfers and in-kind assistance has been huge. According to his calculations, the central government transferred 73.7 billion rupees in cash ($1.2 billion) to about 108 million beneficiaries in 2013–2014. In 2019–2020, it channelled 2.4 trillion rupees ($34 billion) in cash to more than 700 million beneficiaries using its direct benefits transfer platforms, alongside an additional Rs 1.4 trillion rupees ($20 billion) worth of in-kind benefits.
Another key factor to consider is the caste noose, which the Left of Centre politicians are trying to tie around the BJP. The point is – will it work? The allegiance of the Other Backward Classes (OBCs), the largest single voter bloc in India, likely accounts for well above 40% of the population.
The electoral transformation of the BJP under Modi owes its success, in a large measure, to the party’s ability to attract OBCs into its fold—snatching key voters away from the Congress Party and from the so-called Mandal parties in northern India, which mobilised on the basis of empowering backward castes.
Hindi belt parties, like the Janata Dal (United) and Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) in Bihar and the Samajwadi Party (SP) of Uttar Pradesh, shot to popularity thanks to their ability to cater to large segments of the OBC vote—until Modi arrived on the scene.
Thus far, the Indian Prime Minister has seemed to have tided over the caste equation with astounding results. While powerful opposition satraps have tried to play the Mandal card, it would appear that the Modi -mixture of Mandal and Kamandal politics- has left the opposition parties with little breathing space. Or so it appears, as of now.