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Why ‘Proportional Representation’ Would Hurt India’s Democracy

It would divide our society even further and inflame extremism.

27/09/2017 9:34 AM IST | Updated 27/09/2017 11:52 PM IST
Anindito Mukherjee / Reuters

India is considering changing its method of electing people's representatives to the "proportional representation" (PR) system. MPs and MLAs would be selected from a list provided by political parties, based on the proportion of votes received by each party. Under the existing "first-past-the-post" (FPTP) system, they are elected based on the number of votes received by each candidate. The person passing other candidates in votes wins, regardless of party.

If India adopts the PR system it would seriously threaten the legitimacy of our democracy. PR would divide our society even further—it would increase extremism, place our democracy more in the hands of a few, produce poorer leaders, destabilise governments and decrease their effectiveness, and, worst of all, it would make our MPs and MLAs even less responsive to people's needs.

India needs a system that helps us come together. PR would do the opposite.

There are problems with India's current FPTP system as well. Writing recently in favour of switching to PR, the country's former chief election commissioner, SY Quraishi, presented the main argument: "the lack of legitimacy of political parties who are voted to a majority of seats by a minority of voters." Under the existing system, representatives may be elected by a minority of votes, but their party grabs the majority of seats in the legislature. Examples are many, chief among them being the BJP's win in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. The party obtained only 31% of the vote but a thumping majority in Parliament, winning 282 out of 543 seats. This was the lowest vote share in history for a party to win majority seats. Quraishi argues that our existing system also encourages parties to target vote-banks, enter divisive electoral strategies and field tainted candidates.

However, my contention is that it is our system of government that is the chief cause of all these problems, not our system of electing representatives. The basic tenet of the parliamentary system gives all powers to the majority party, not to individual members. If executive and legislative officials were elected separately and empowered individually (as in the presidential form of government) candidates' merit would matter more than their party affiliation. And if these officials were elected from varying constituencies—for example, a whole state for some MPs or the entire nation for the PM—it wouldn't be so easy to win through vote-bank politics. So switching to PR without a change in the system of government would only add to and worsen the problems that Quraishi rues.

Fragmentation and extremism

PR would divide Indian society further and inflame extremism. When parties are promised seats in proportion to their votes, politicians would find newer and newer ways to form parties and fuel parochial thinking to gain supporters. Centrist parties would not be able to make such promises, and hence would lose support. Consider all the local, class, ethnic, racial, religious and linguistic interests that could easily generate viable political parties. One shudders to think of the possibilities: a Sunni Party, Jain Party, Rajput Party, Brahmin Party, Telugu Party, Southern Party, Northeastern Party, Maoist Party, and so on.

When parties are promised seats in proportion to their votes, politicians would find newer and newer ways to form parties and fuel parochial thinking to gain supporters.

India needs a system that helps us come together. PR would do the opposite. American political scientist Fred Riggs studied PR in the 1990s, and noted that "PR systems are widespread in Latin America, and they encourage the proliferation of centrifugal party systems." He says centripetalism (the tendency to centralise) is evident when parties attempt to win support of independent voters. Similarly, in the famous 1941 work Democracy or Anarchy?: A Study of Proportional Representation, German political scientist FA Hermens blamed PR for Europe's fall. "If we only think of what separates us and not of what united us," he wrote, "and proceed on that basis in elections, then we are courting the danger of anarchy."

Democracy in the hands of a few

Secondly, PR would place India's democracy squarely in the hands of party bosses. When candidates win by being on the party's list, they must woo their bosses and represent their parties, not the people. This was the main reason that when PR was first proposed in the UK in the 1800s, British constitutional scholar Walter Bagehot became its biggest opponent. PR would produce "party men mainly," he said in his book The English Constitution, and "the member-makers would look not for independence, but for subservience."

This can only intensify partisanship in India's Parliament and state legislatures. We already see PR's harmful effect in today's Rajya Sabha, whose members are elected by parties under this method. If PR is adopted, all our legislatures would be comprised of "party politicians selected by a party committee and pledged to party violence," according to Bagehot.

Poor governance and lousy candidates

Thirdly, PR would revive India's problem with unstable governments. When parties are guaranteed representation on the basis of percentage of votes received, they would have little interest in forming or sustaining coalitions. Their ideological or other vote-bank would be present even if a government falls. Party bosses, unconcerned about losing their support, would openly bargain for power. Minor swing parties would make or break governments. Indians overcame all this by passing anti-defection laws. This gave rise to stable governments through pre-poll coalitions, such as the NDA and UPA. All of that progress toward forming ideologically moderate coalitions for the country's governance would be lost.

The constant politicking caused by PR would make it impossible for governments to take bold or transformative decisions. Corruption would grow, for people wouldn't be able to oust a dishonest representative individually.

An electoral system's aim is not just to deliver an accurate representation of society, but to foster responsive governance. The constant politicking caused by PR would make it impossible for governments to take bold or transformative decisions. Corruption would grow, for people wouldn't be able to oust a dishonest representative individually. PR is "unavoidably biased toward extremism, instability, immoderation and ineffectiveness," warned Jon Basil Utley, senior fellow at Austria's Mises Institute.

As for PR's disastrous effect on the quality of our representatives, they would be good dealmakers but nothing more. Political dynasties would only grow. Under a façade of representativeness, India would be ruled by political wheeler-dealers.

An undemocratic premise

Lastly, there is the undemocratic element of having representatives unhinged from geographic constituencies. Under PR, an MP or MLA may not represent a specific constituency, or the one to which he or she belongs. Candidates would be chosen in the order of a list provided by parties.

To overcome this and other criticisms of PR, Quraishi suggests a PR-FPTP hybrid, a system followed in modern-day Germany. Ironically, Germany adopted this current combination after it failed completely under a full PR system. In the 1930 elections, the Nazi party would have lost seats under FPTP, but gained ground due to PR.

A hybrid system cannot eliminate PR's fundamental weaknesses—it can only limit their damage. India would be much better served by staying completely clear of proportional representation.

The opinions expressed in this post are the personal views of the author. They do not necessarily reflect the views of HuffPost India. Any omissions or errors are the author's and HuffPost India does not assume any liability or responsibility for them.

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