In Defence of Proportional Representation

In my earlier post on corruption debate-I, I emphasized the dire need to replace the first-past-the-post system with the PR. I am glad that HT editor, Vir Sanghvi has endorsed my suggestion in his column, in today’s HT. I agree with him entirely on how journalists have been pretending to know how voters vote, without actually having an inkling on the voting behaviour. The perceived merits of the current system are too insignificant to be taken seriously, whereas the PR has a lot of things to its credit. I propose we start a national campaign in favour of the PR, so that more people and parties realize its merits. . I have often wondered in the course of covering an election, or reading a story on election campaign, what exactly should a journalist or an impartial observer be looking for. If the objective is prediction of the outcome, it hardly interests me. It is not uncommon to find such predictions going awry, and even if they are correct, it is unlikely to lead to any genuine satisfaction that one understood the elections; a correct prediction of an outcome may be due to chance, rather than a result of mature judgment. In any case, a journalist is different from a pollster, who uses opinion and exit polls to predict and explain results and trends. A pollster too goes wrong many times, and therefore, is not reliable enough to understand an election. Looking for trends and patterns in a constituency, therefore, made little sense to me. If a journalist’s purpose is to explain an outcome in terms of voters’ responses on the dominant issues, it is likely to be unconvincing, especially in a close contest, where the voters are seemingly fragmented. If one confines to campaign styles, and the content of speeches made by leaders and candidates, one is sure to find that these are hardly the factors which influence a voter.
The former Chief Election Commissioner, T.S.Krishna Murthy once succinctly summed it up in terms of two Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMDs): money power and muscle power. Media reports on these two have only contributed to strengthen the prevailing myths, rather than unravel them. Writing about money power of a candidate or a political party is not easy for a journalist. One needs facts, and corroboration to establish that a candidate or a party used money power to distort or attempt to distort the outcome of an election. Doubtless, it is an offence under the Indian Penal Code and a violation of the Model Code of Conduct for political parties and the candidates. Such cases need to be exposed, and the E.C. has a responsibility to prevent and punish such violations. While law in this regard should take its own course, my interest here is in understanding whether money power was useful in distorting the outcome of an election. A study conducted by the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS) in 24 constituencies spread across 17 States and Union Territories during the 1999 Lok Sabha elections found that almost all 122 candidates monitored by it had exceeded the expenditure ceilings imposed by the law (currently it is Rs.14 lakhs in a Lok Sabha election). The study found that money mattered to gain an entry into the electoral fray, and to remain visibly in the race, but you can’t hope to buy the votes and win elections. In other words, it is not true that the more you spend, the more likely you are to succeed. So, money power appears to be bad not because it results in distortion of an electoral outcome, but because it keeps off those with little money from securing party tickets, and contesting meaningfully. As money is required for campaign, the parties cannot be faulted for giving nominations to candidates, who can fund their as well as party’s campaign. As the unrealistic expenditure ceilings imposed by the statute are meaningless, there is little merit in saying that candidates are guilty of flouting the ceiling. It also makes little sense to argue that the system is unfair to those candidates who have limited resources to secure a party ticket, contest and win an election.
Just imagine how PR could change all these ills as irrelevant. The other aspect is to understand how a candidate or a party funds a campaign, that is, the sources of such funding; and how and why these sources fund, whether they expect a quid pro quo from the system. These are larger issues which no journalist has bothered to touch because of limitations of ensuring the confidentiality.
The second WMD is the muscle power. There is absolute lack of clarity on what this means. There is an assumption that violence is induced during the election to keep away voters from exercising their franchise. A party which stands to lose from the exercise of franchise by voters, uses muscle power to unleash violence, to create a climate of terror and to intimidate so that the hostile voters are kept away from the polling booth. One needs to look at the facts and understand this phenomenon. In my view, media has not brought out any instance of such violence resulting in or threatening the distortion of outcome in an election, even though such a phenomenon is apparent. If each vote is to be valued in terms of percentage of seats as in PR, parties will have a vested interest in increasing their vote percentage. In the current system, there is a premium in winning a seat by hook or crook, and this leads to use of all sorts of unfair means. Under PR, constituencies will simply vanish from the electoral map, (forget delimitation), and there will be no pressure on parties and candidates to win as many seats as possible by unfair means, because it will not matter. As no vote will be wasted in terms of voting for a losing party or candidate, there will be less incentive for voter apathy, and parties will be motivated to campaign on larger issues, rather than trivialize the election in terms of local issues.
As a journalist, I have been curious about these two much-talked about issues, and how they taint the electoral process. The WMDs are perhaps the inevitable results of the manner the meaning of democracy has been menacingly narrowed to signify only elections, as Sunil Khilnani put it in The Idea of India. (Penguin, 1997). As I tried to learn more about these two issues, I found that there were several questions about the role and contribution of the Election Commission in ensuring “free and fair polls”, a concept which I believe, gives democracy a wider meaning than just holding of elections. Except once during the Emergency, the holding of regular elections at periodical intervals has never been disturbed in Indian democracy. Therefore, the periodical celebration of democracy in the form of elections is of no interest to me.
Is there a crisis of democracy? What is the magnitude of this crisis, and does it threaten the gains India has made as a democracy? Jawaharlal Nehru, expressed his dissatisfaction once during the formative years of the Indian Republic with the system of direct elections to Parliament and State assemblies, because of the challenges it posed. Although he reconciled himself with the inevitability of the Indian elections subsequently, the context in which he expressed his fears first needs to be relooked afresh, to understand the current obsession of the State and the contenders for power with elections, based on the first-past-the-post system.
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  • Dear Mr. Venkatesan,

    I have to say that I don’t have much sympathy for this suggestion. Particularly because, I see that Vir Sanghvi at one point suggests that we in India should adopt a US style presidential system. This, when the effects of the fundamental crisis in the US electoral system which Bush v. Gore exposed are still fresh in our minds. In the aftermath of that episode, some U.S. constitutional scholars suggested that new countries should look away from the U.S. model, and focus instead on British parliamentary systems for their perceived superiority in achieving good governance. Arguably, one can separate out the U.S. presidential system from the process that Americans use to elect their President, but that will still mean adopting an entirely new system, a process which has substantial costs.

    I tend to a bit skeptical towards suggestions for ‘reform’ which consist of advocating that the status quo be wholly abandoned, and
    some other system existing in another part of the world, which looks very good on paper, be adopted instead. I haven’t conducted a study of Proportional Representation in Europe, but given that Europeans don’t seem entirely happy with how PR works in individual nations within Europe, I am sure there are downsides to that as well. Is there any evidence to show that the PR system is able to avoid the vices of ‘money power’ and ‘muscle power’ completely?

    In the 80s, there were many people who suggested that the way out for India was to adopt a US style presidential system. That, incidentally, appears to be how many people in the Philippines also think today, as they try and come up with ways of fixing what they perceive to be ills with their democratic polity today.

    While I am all for innovative solutions to our democratic system, I am not sure that path lies in adopting an entirely new system from somewhere else. There are huge costs to giving up a system that has been in place for more than 60 years, and replacing it with something entirely new. To mention but one aspect, this will require training a whole lot of individuals : the political players, the referees, the electorate – a massive operation in itself.

    I am not sure the problems with our democratic system that Vir Singhvi documents are attributable to the first-past-the-post system alone. I think these problems are more fundamental, and I am not sure that merely swapping one system of elections for another will fix it.
    The issues that bedevil our polity – lack of a democratic spirit within major political parties, corruption, criminalisation, nepotism, a tendency to play the politics of vote-banks, etc. – won’t simply go away by adopting a different system.



  • Arun,
    You seem to oppose PR – as far as I understand it – because it
    A:involves substantial costs (as if the existing system where the winner takes all is cost-effective). Ans: On the face of it, it looks very simple, and much more cost-efficient than the current system. Only thing is we should display the will power to abandon the existing cost-inefficient system.
    B.I am not sure whether PR would avoid the vices of money/muscle power:
    Ans: True, I have not carried out a detailed analysis of PR exprience globally. One could make it, as I find some useful sites on this. Mine is definitely impressionistic, born out of superficial understanding of what PR stands for, and the roots of money and muscle power in India. If we are not ready to abandon the existing system at one go, may be we could try to combine both, and see the results as an experiment.
    C: Need for training etc. mind-boggling! Similar criticisms were made when we introduced electronic voting machines, and even photo I-cards. Are these not a reality now? The question is whether the reform merits a try and whether it would be an improvement over the existing system, and whether it would enhance greatly the meaning of representation and democracy – the last question has to be answered entirely in the affirmative. I am glad Arun has not disputed this. True, simultaneously, we would require other reforms as well, like the party reform, and even the introduction of block-vote proposal which I had suggested earlier to remove the ills of anti-defection Act.
    Today, we are already talking of Women’s reservation bill, which could have been easily a reality, but for the opposition from male legislators. It could have vastly changed the character of our representative democracy. No complex questions that Arun poses appeared daunting to us.
    The winner takes all system reduces our representation to a myth – in a multi-party contest in a constituency, it is the minority of voters whose preference gets translated as the result. Put all such results together, and we have a government and Parliament representing such a minuscule minority of voters. Is there any meaning in our discussion of the mandate etc.
    Even former CEC, Dr.Gill has urged the need for a second round of election, and even a third one, so that the final result reflects the will of more than 50 per cent of the votes cast. PR will take it further, and make every vote count, and getit due value.
    As I understand, PR might lead to instability, etc. as if the present system always leads to stable results. With appropriate reforms in the party system, PR can vastly improve the representative and democratic content of our Republic.

  • Dear Mr. Venkatesan,

    I take your point, and hope that I didnt’ come across as someone who opposes change for its own sake.

    I do think, however, that the instances you mention can be distinguished, and are not apposite analogies. EVMs and photo IDs may have required massive operationalising costs, but they are aspects of procedure, and did not require overhauling of substantive mechanisms, which involve far higher costs. And, while the Women’s reservation Bill will bring about great changes, they will still be familiar ones because of the historical presence of legislative quotas for SCs/STs . As such, these do not represent the kind of paradigm shifts that moving over to the PR system will involve.

    Following your suggestion, I did some basic research, and found that many countries are actively considering proposals to move over to the PR system. There does seem to be an increasing consensus about the virtues of PR over first-past-the-post systems. However, there are also appear to be documented concerns over how PR systems are not without problems (I include a link to one such article):

    If indeed a national campaign is to be mounted for considering PR as an option, I would think that some preliminary steps would be in order. THe first of these should be a detailed study conducted by an institution which has both the background in Indian political systems, as well as the capacity to undertake a proper study of the suitability of PR systems for being incorporated in India. I can think of the CSDS, Delhi as being one such institution, which can perhaps work in collaboration with the Election Commission to pursue such research.



  • Dear Venkatesan & Arun,
    I do not join the debate at this stage, as I worry about the wily politician’s ingenuity to corrupt all forms of democratic devices. Arun rightly joins issue with Vir Sanghvi’s suggestion for a Presidential form, as the US experience sadly throws its deficits in the open. It is still moot whether George W.Bush won the election at all in the first round. I was getting a blow-by- blow account as I was, then, California then, a reasonably liberal State in USA. And, it requied a revolution, indeed, in electoral preferences, recently in the elections for the Legislatures there, as I was, then, watcihing it from Missouri, a conservative State. We certainly cannot go for it, having witnessed it in de facto under Indira Gandhi.

    Let us first draw a checklist as to the ways in which public participation can improve the present system.

    Incidentally, the present CEC, N. Gopalaswami spoke for the proportional representation at Kumbakonam recently.

    This is not an anonymous post.
    User name: Innamburan

  • Dear Mr.Soundararajan,
    It is good to know that our CEC has also endorsed PR. I will try to get copy of his address delivered at Kumbakonam. Thanks for the useful information.