Nation of Beancounters

Should we switch to proportional representation in India?

Posted in Indian Politics, Third World Instituitions by Navin Kumar on May 20, 2014

In India, you can win an election without acquiring the majority of votes in a district. You merely have to win more than everyone else. You can become an MP with 10% of the vote, as long as the other 10 candidates get 9% of the vote each. This means that a small minority of voters can determine the outcome of an election, provided they vote as a bloc. This is the dynamic responsible for the notorious “vote bank” style of politics in India. I think we ought to switch to the (admittedly imperfect) instant-runoff voting system.

Suddenly, a lot of people agree that FPTP is an awful system. Unfortunately, they want to replace it with a proportional representation system – if the BJP has 30% of the vote, it gets only 30% of all seats in parliament. I think a this system is a bad idea for India. For the moment I will assume that under such a system voters will vote for parties. Parties will, in turn, select individuals to occupy seats. Here are my thoughts, in no particular order:

1. Issues can arise when, in a democracy, a particular party dominates politics. For example, what will happen to those ethnic minorities that aren’t important to – or considered enemies by – the supporters that voted in the dominant party? These fears are valid. In light of this it is tempting to put into place a system that prevents any one party from accumulating power. However, until recently, the problem with politics in India wasn’t too little fracturing – it was too much. This is the first time a non-coalition government could be formed in nearly three decades. Coalition governments have costs of their own. Reform slows to a crawl. As power declines, so does responsibility – witness the way the INC tried to distance itself from the 2G scam by blaming it’s allies. It’s not clear that benefits created by the necessity of coalitions outweighs the costs.

2. India is a diverse country, not merely along religious or caste lines but also geographically. Under the current system, each geographical area sends one representative. The MP from an area is supposed to have a clear view of the unique problems facing her area, and to to improve the lives of citizens there. You, the voter, knows who your representative is, and therefore who to punish if your life doesn’t improve. Under this new system, the notion of a constituent, or a specific representative to whom you can address your concerns, becomes meaningless. Unless PRS supporters can come up with an ingenious method of assigning a representative to a citizen, there will be a substantial loss of accountability and information.

3. Currently there are two major forces that influences a voter: his private interests as the resident of a particular district, and the interests of those who share his group identity (e.g. Upper-caste Hindu). With the link between voting and his private interests severed, he will be far more likely to vote his identity. This can be harmful.

4. It will become harder for MPs to dissent against their parties. Currently, they are accountable to both their party and constituents. Now, however, they owe their seat to the party alone.

5. Without direct voting, it will become much easier to pack parliament with members of the economic and cultural elite who are connected to existing party leaders. If you think political dynasties are powerful now…

6. It’s not clear that alternative methods would have generated different outcomes. If we had direct presidential elections, Modi would probably have won by an even greater margin than the BJP has now. If someone is disqualified because “69% of the population didn’t vote for him”, it’s hard to see who could be Prime Minister.

7. The purpose of an election is not to secure representation for all, which is impossible. (Where’s my disabled gay Dravidian balding MP?). It is to select individuals to form an accountable government.

8. There is no optimal election method. A clear explanation of the maths involved can be found here.

I think many of the PRS supporters in India haven’t thought their idea through.


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