[op-ed snap]The urgent need for electoral reforms in India

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Mains Paper 2: Governance | Important aspects of governance, transparency and accountability, e-governance- applications, models, successes, limitations, and potential

From UPSC perspective, the following things are important:

Prelims level: Not much

Mains level: The newscard briefly discusses how present electoral system is problematic and needs reforms.


NEWS

CONTEXT

Electoral system, election Machinery are in dire need of reforms.

Election Year

  • The Election Commission (EC) has urged voters to vote freely, fearlessly, and make an informed and ethical choice.
  • The numbers are staggering: 900 million eligible voters, a million voting booths, 10 million election officials (not counting security personnel), an expected 10,000 candidates for 545 seats, and more than 500 political parties in the fray.

Weaknesses of The first-past-the-post (FPTP) electoral system 

  • The first-past-the-post (FPTP) electoral system seems to encourage polarization, since in a multi-corner contest, even a low vote share is enough to get you elected and this often involves an extreme ideological focus on a core voter base.
  • One consequence of FPTP is the trend of constituents being micro-targeted with customized messages.
  • Another result is the non-linear relationship between vote share and seat share. 
  • Even a 1% vote swing can increase a party’s seat share by 10-15%.
  • The particularly stark case was that of the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), which in 2014 got 20% of Uttar Pradesh’s vote but no single Lok Sabha seat. 

Suggestions for Electoral Reforms

  •  Electoral reforms are overdue. A comprehensive agenda was laid out by the EC itself in a letter to the prime minister back in July 2004.
  • The gist of them is to make the process more transparent, disqualify criminal elements, mandate greater disclosure of money power, forge inner-party democracy and raise voter participation. 
  • Elections are now vulnerable to the adverse influence of three ‘M’s: money, muscle and media (including the social kind).
  • The EC’s job is to minimize this influence and ensure voting free from fear and coercion, plus a level playing field.

Representativeness of Indian Parliament

  • The trend over past several Lok Sabhas has been of a widening gap between the people and their representatives. This is a matter of grave concern.
  • Be it MPs or MLAs, elected representatives are agents of the people. In economics lingo, this is a principal-agent problem, where people are the “principal”.
  • Whoever they appoint (i.e. elect) has to do their bidding, or at least act in their best interest.
  • In the absence of any other signal of “credibility” or “trustworthiness” from candidates, voters often make choices based on caste, muscle power (to “get things done”) or charisma.

Lok Sabha distancing from people

  • To assess representativeness, consider the gaps between electors and the elected on such parameters as age, gender, wealth, criminality, education, dynasty and size of constituency.
  • The average age of the 13th Lok Sabha was 55.5 years, which went down to 52.7 in the 14th, but then went up again to 53 in the 15th, and 56 in the outgoing one.
  • It was only 46.5 years in 1952. India’s median age, however, is just 26. Two-thirds of the population is below 35. Yet our MPs are getting older. In contrast, the so-called ageing countries like the UK, Italy, France and Canada are electing much younger leaders.
  • On gender, women account for only 12% of the Lok Sabha. At least three states have zero female MPs. Less than 10% of candidates are women. Not so long ago, more than two-thirds of constituencies had no single female candidate. The Women’s Reservation Bill, meanwhile, has been pending in Parliament for over four decades.
  • 82% of all Lok Sabha members are crorepatis, i.e. have declared wealth of more than 1 crore. Their numbers have gone up from 156 to 315 to 449 in the last three Lok Sabhas. Their average wealth (declared via self-sworn affidavits) is around 14 crore. (In the Rajya Sabha, the average is 55 crore). The average income is around 31 lakh, which is 20 times India’s present per capita income.
  • On criminality, the proportion of MPs with criminal cases has been going up steadily, from 12% to 15% to 21%, since 2004.
  • On dynasty, it is well known (and documented by Patrick French) that an increasing number of elected representatives have a close relative (parent, spouse, sibling or cousin) who was an incumbent or a senior politician. 
  • Since the size of India’s parliament is frozen, we have a curious anomaly of constituency sizes ranging from a few thousand to over 3 million.

Conclusion

India will soon have to grapple the issue of delimitation of constituencies and increase the number of MPs if it wants to retain the representativeness of parliament that’s essential to democracy.

 

Electoral Reforms In India
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