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'The idea of representation is thinning'

July 11, 2010 18:32 IST

Our founding fathers adopted specific electoral systems for specific institutions of the state. While elections to the Lower Houses of the Central and state legislatures were on the basis of adult suffrage and first-past-the-post in delimited constituencies, elections to the Upper Houses was on the basis of proportional representation through a single transferable vote. A similar electoral system of proportional representation through a single transferable vote with different electorates has also been prescribed for the elections of the President and the Vice-President.

Since every decision has a context, a re-look at the occasion and the legislative intent is educative.

The issue of representativeness came up for discussion in the Constituent Assembly in the Report on Minority Rights that was submitted on August 8, 1947. In the debate that followed, one Member moved an amendment suggesting Qualified Joint Electorates and stipulating that a Scheduled Caste candidate, before being declared elected, "shall have secured not less than 35 per cent of the votes polled by the Scheduled Castes in the elections for the reserved seat". He argued that it was important to demonstrate the Scheduled Caste representativeness of a victor in a seat reserved for Scheduled Castes.

Another Member argued that "there should be confidence in the minds of the minorities that their views are properly represented in the legislature by persons in whom they have confidence and in whose election they have a reasonably fair voice". Yet another proposal was for abolition of reserved constituencies and introduction of a system of proportional representation with multi-member constituencies by means of cumulative vote for election to the Lower Houses of legislatures.

In response, Dr Ambedkar gave three reasons for preferring the first-past-the-post system over the proportional representation system: Absence of a high level of literacy essential for proportional representation; Apprehension of a fragmented legislature that would impede stable government and maintenance of law and order; Disruption of the agreement already arrived at between the various minority communities and the majority community.

It would be recalled that the Two-Member Constituencies (Abolition) Act of January, 1961, abolished the Two-Member and Three-Member Constituencies to which elections took place in the 1952 and 1957 general elections.

How well has the first-past-the-post system worked? Electoral record for the Lok Sabha elections shows that, in the past five General Elections, the number of winning candidates who secured 50 per cent or more of the valid votes polled has varied between 121 and 221; it was 121 in 2009. Earlier, the Venkatachaliah Commission had surveyed the record of three general elections to conclude that over two-thirds of the members of the Lok Sabha and almost 90 per cent of the members of some State Legislative Assemblies were elected on a minority vote.

A perceptive observer of our electoral scene has rightly focused on what he calls the 'paradox' of a deepening representative democracy coexisting with a thinning of the very idea of representation. This paradox, he adds, plays out differently in different domains of the democratic arena and most commonly takes the form of an encounter between a dynamic political process and an inflexible institutional response.

A few questions unavoidably come to mind: What is the representative-ness of the elected representative? Our system works on the principle of plurality rather than of majority.

Does the current electoral system encourage a politics defined by 'who you are' and 'where you live' rather than 'what you believe in' and 'what you want to achieve'? What can be done to address the grievance of under-representation and unequal access to political power emanating from the Muslims?

The data is compelling and disturbing. How are we to overcome the implications, in terms of the principle of one person, one vote, one value, of the 84th Amendment that froze the number of seats in the Lok Sabha and the State Legislative Assemblies till the year 2026?

(Excerpts from an address by Vice-President Hamid Ansari at a national seminar on electoral reforms organised by the C Achutha Menon Study Centre and Library at Thiruvananthapuram on July 8)

Hamid Ansari