Readers Write In #349: A case against the current system of elections

Posted on March 26, 2021

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(by G Waugh)

Assume that you are a social activist. You belong to an area where a chemical factory keeps sending harmful effluents to the local water bodies and other sources of water for public use. In addition, the workers who are employed there have also been exposed to harmful radiation and many of them suffer from different types of diseases. You have been struggling alone against the factory for a lot many months and the government does not seem to be keen on interfering into the issue. There are only two major political parties in your area which keep winning on an alternate basis and both of them seem to be‘well-taken care of’by the owner of the factory. Soon you realisethat the only solution to this problem is to gather public opinion against the factory and make important ‘heads’ turn. You aren’t adequately funded as to run a proper campaign and despite that you manage to get a lot of support from the local public against the factory. But soon you find out that even the legal machinery is at the very whim of the factory owner and you are left with no choice but only one- the Elections. Only by entering the Assembly and raising the issue there you think you can gain the attention of the masses and force the hand of the government to interfere into the issue.

Elections are around the corner and you contest as an independent. Since you are quite popular and the young people are in favour of an alternative, it appears that your decision to enter politics is not so bad after all. However it is very apparent that the majority of the masses in your constituencyb are traditional supporters of the two largest parties in the State and your chances of winning the election are very, very slim. Despite that, you persist, with the hope of entering the Assembly in another five or ten years.

The Elections get over and the results are out. You are defeated but you manage to win around 10 percent of votes in your constituency. Nothing has changed for you except that you were successful in attracting a solid proportion of the votes despite working with very less resources. Your struggle against the factory continues for another five years during which you work extra hard in polarizing public opinion in your favour by employing newer and attractive forms of campaigning.

The next round of Assembly elections arrive and this time you are confident of gaining atleast 20-25 percent of the vote. But unfortunately that’s when the worst thing happens. A very popular film star who is well past his prime in cinema has suddenly discovered his ‘inner’ calling and decided to float a political party. He has a lot of resources at his disposal in terms of people and finances and it appears that he could give the existing political parties a good run for their money. All these days, you knew that your support base was largely among the young and your hopes of winning the elections regardless of how difficultit was,were growing brighter by the day as these youngsters were maturing into adults and assertive citizens. But the film star, it seems has nominated a young, charismatic actor for your constituency who without doubt, knows virtually nothing about your area and its people, in comparison to what you do. The Elections get over and you find that the young actor in his very first election, has garnered more than 15 percent of the vote but an experienced, much qualified person like you are left with less than a sorry 5 percent. You get completely disillusioned with your cause and soon quit politics as well as your activism. The issues in your area continue to remain unaddressed and a sizable section of the population is left to suffer as much as before.

Why do you think were you not able to attract voters despite your proven ‘credentials’? Going by the logic that a lot of people are actually waiting for good, honest and knowledgeable candidates to lead them, why do none of them get elected when they actually enter the fray? If democracy is all about the expression of popular will, why do dishonest and corrupt candidates keep winning time and again? Do the majority of the people truly believe that the corrupt person whom they vote for, election after election will someday by quirk of fate, suddenly reform himself and start working for them? Or are the voters themselves corrupt and dishonest and vote for bad guys desperately hoping that their winner will one day, in some form or the other return the favour?

The truth is that most people already know that the person whom they are voting for is corrupt, venal and is in the ‘business’ of politics solely to ‘enrich’ himself in all possible ways. But the main reason they all keep voting for him is only this – there is no alternative (TINA). You might be tempted to ask that when we have alternative, honest, independent candidates contesting elections every now and then, how can this be yet another case of a TINA? Yes, I admit that there are alternatives everywhere but the problem is that our people won’t vote for them only because of one huge reason- they just won’t win.

Apparently this may seem like a paradox- if people vote for a candidate they must naturally win and there is absolutely no reason why they must worry about the candidate’s ‘winnability’. But the worst part is most people in our country seem to think completely otherwise- ‘we should vote for a person only if it looks like he will win’ and with good reason too. This is not a paradox if you look at it very closely since it is very difficult to call ours a proper electoral ‘democracy’ in the correct sense of the word. People of our country don’t necessarily look at politics as a ‘clash of conflicting good ideas’ and the better idea doesn’t always gain the highest traction as it is widely assumed to be. In other words, here ‘democracy’ is all about projecting oneself against the other and if you are able to market yourself better than the other, regardless of how big a political charlatan you are, you will be better placed to ascend the throne at the end of the day. And more the financial resources you have at your disposal, the easier all of this becomes.

So our hallowed ‘democracy’whether we like it or not, finally boils down to not exactly ‘a healthy clash between virtuous ideas and persons’ as it must ideally be, but to an ‘ugly slugfest of money power and marketing ideas’, where honesty, sacrifice, political knowledge and idealism are nothing more than useless baggage. This is one big reason why corporate companies masquerading as ‘political action committees’ exist in India and try to tilt public opinion in favour of those who fund them, regardless of their inherent merit. And this is also one big reason why the Extreme Left has traditionally refused to call India, a proper electoral ‘democracy’ and has no qualms in calling the Parliament, ‘one giant incorrigible pigsty’.

***

You share your rented accommodation with six more people in a big city. The house has ten small individual bedrooms and a very comfortable and well-ventilated, common living area. But the downside is that the house is located very near a lake which in the last few months, has turned into something like a cesspool infested with flies and mosquitoes, for reasons unknown. The owner of the accommodation visits the place only once a year and the rest of the time he travels around the world and remains unreachable. Of late, the mosquito ‘menace’ has been too much to bear for you and two more friends of you have also started complaining. The owner during one of his annual visits meets you one evening and informs that three more people will also be sharing the space going forward. You promptly inform your owner about the ‘mosquito’ issue and succeed in driving him towards a solution- the immediate installation of mosquito nets on all the windows of the house.

But he places two conditions on his decision- one, the majority of the dwellers must admit that there is a mosquito menace and vote for the installation of the ‘nets’ and two, every single tenant must bear at least half the expenses needed for the installation.He also adds that the three new-comers will join you the next day and will participate in the ‘polling’ scheduled for next week.

The new-comers somehow by making temporary adjustments to the new ‘situation’ at night and also by focusing on the positive aspects of the new place, successfully pass the week without bothering too much about the mosquitoes. And also because they don’t have the immediate resources to pay extra for the installation and by grossly underestimating the issue at stake, decide to vote ‘neutral’ on the day of the polling. The rest of your companions- the already existing four,much to your embarrassment, completely underplay the extent of the mosquito ‘menace’ in front of the owner and vote clearly against the ‘installation’.

The reason for their denial you later find out, is that the first two among them have been posted to work on ‘night’ shifts at office going forward and the remaining two are ‘night owls’ who love to stay awake and watch films at night. So the poll unfortunately ends this way- four against the ‘installation’, three ‘in favour of’(including you) and the remaining three going ‘neutral’.

The owner of the place considers the three ‘neutral’ votes as having been given against the ‘installation’ and decides to shelve the plan completely. He leaves the country and disappears for a year and according to the terms of your rental agreement,you are not supposed to make any alterations to the house without the owner’s prior consent. Soon you start going sleepless at night along with your companions while it is revealed that the new-comers too are waking up to the ‘reality’ slowly and steadily. One of them soon gets affected with malaria and a new, virulent strain of dengue hits two more. You too, having under-slept for months together notice that you are beginning to have anxiety complications as a result of which your performance at your workplace is also going south. Soon the ‘night owls’ who voted clearly against the ‘installation’ also start feeling the ‘pinch’ and are quickly driven towards spending their nights somewhere else at their friends’ place. You along with the rest of your five companions, without enough money or contacts to shift to some other place, continue to suffer in the same accommodation, waiting desperately for the return of the owner, praying that the remaining months pass as quickly as possible.

***

In 2001 elections in Tamilnadu, the ADMK won 196 seats of 234 while the DMK won a paltry 37. In 2011 elections in West Bengal, the TMC-led front won 224 seats while the Left won 62. In both these cases, the percentage of seats won by the winning party exceeded 75 percent and those won by the other side didn’t cross even 25. But if you look at the percentage of votes secured by the parties in both these cases, the difference between the winner and the loser never seems to cross even an astonishingly small 12 percent. In fact the Left front lost West Bengal in 2011 by just less than 2 percent vote. What does all of this mean? Just because 40 people out of 100 were clear in their choice about the party they wanted in power, the preferences of the rest, the majority – a gargantuan 60 percent were consciously thrown to the winds. If democracy as is often stated, is all about the rule of the majority over the minority, how did 40 become a bigger number than 60? In the 2014 elections, the NDA won just 37 percent of the popular vote getting more than 300 seats in the Parliament while the UPA which won around 24 percent couldn’t cross even 60. Just because 37 people had managed to club themselves into a group, the opinion of the remaining 63 who remained scattered was easily brushed under the carpet.(If you think this has been the case only in the last two decades, you are wrong – even the most popular leaders of India such as Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi weren’t been able to secure more than 55 percent of the popular vote for the parties they led.)

And all of these were possible only because of one gaping hole in the system of elections we follow- ‘The First Past the Post System’ (FPTP) which was introduced by the British in the late 1930s and faithfully inherited by us post-Independence. It has been more than seven decades since we started following this system and despite the fact that there has virtually been no improvement in the quality of candidates produced by this, there has been no discussion about reforming or altering it. Some countries which do better than most in terms of social and economic indices, the Nordic countries follow systems of democracy much different than the ones we follow- the Proportional Representation system (PR) and even though I am not the one who knows all the ins and outs about it, the basic idea behind it sounded pretty attractive to me- every party gets seats in the Parliament proportionate to the vote shares they manage to get, provided each one of them clears a particular threshold. For example, if yours is a fledgling party run by a chain of social/environmental activists from all over the country and even if you manage to win only 10 percent of the popular vote, you will still get exactly 10 percent of the total number of seats in the Parliament- in our case an astounding 54 seats out of 545.

And in such a scenario where even a small vote share such 5 or 10 percent is sure to give you seats and subsequently voice in the Parliament, there is a very high possibility that voters traditionally disenchanted with the largest parties might gravitate towards yours and that might in turn, serve as a big boost for more knowledgeable and honest people to join your party as electoral candidates. That shall give your party even more popularity among the masses leading toa strong increase in its membership which shall translate into higher donations from the public and better ways to manage the campaign. Slowly and steadily you can increase your vote share and subsequently acquire more seats in the Parliament and even think about inching close to power. A well-supervised PR electoral system thus might throw open possibilities for fresh, well-meaning, real alternatives to traditionally dominant, mammoth, cash-rich, power-hungry, self-seeking parties and imbue the term ‘democracy’ with more power and significance. In the case of our mosquito story too, a PR-style of voting would have given the much-needed mosquito nets at least to the bedrooms of those who voted for the ‘installation’, even if those of others were left undisturbed as before, as mandated.

***

A separate case study could be written about the story of how the FPTP voting system single-handedly smothered the idealism and direction of the Dalit movement in India which received new vitality and hope at the beginning of our independence. The Dalit population never exceeded a small 15 percent in its whole political history and the FPTP by its very nature of being ‘anti-minoritarian’ destroyed all possibilities for their consolidation under a single political ‘head’ right from the beginning. This led to the splintering of the Dalit vote bank into smaller chunks each of which was capitalized by both desperate and opportunistic Dalit political outfits who bartered them in return for ‘short-sighted benefits and temporary favours’ to larger, established and traditionally hegemonic, upper caste-driven political parties.

A PR electoral system had it been adopted here post – Independence, would have without doubt, given a solid chance to the movement by providing the 15 percent population with adequate representation in the Parliament and who knows, by this time, these communities would have grown socially and economically well enough to the extent of even surrendering their much- disputed ‘reservations’ today.

***

I have been observing elections in India for the last one and half decades at least cursorily and I have seen students from the IIT, activists like Traffic Ramasamy, SP Udayakumaran and many dedicated Trade Union and Kisan Sabha activists taking the political plunge with so much hope and optimism only to lose the next elections and disappear immediately into oblivion. And thanks to a terribly manipulated FPTP system, the question in front of these honest individuals to make their way into the Assembly has never been an easy ‘Are you an honest man to get things done for us?’ but a rather difficult and perplexing ‘will you be able to win the elections?

The FPTP has for generations together thrown political novices like cinema actors, goons, murderers, smugglers, kidnappers and rapists in front of us as candidates and we have voted for them and sent them as our representatives to the Parliament without worrying too much about the consequences. There has been absolutely no way of letting our representative know that we have elected him only because the system has given us no other alternative and every vote we gave to these criminals has only been interpreted as a hearty endorsement of all their shenanigans and scandalous activities.

Every time we individuals have wanted to teach a ‘bad’ leader and his large party ‘a lesson’, the FPTP has only forced us to join the next largest group in order to accomplish it and has never allowed people like us to stay where we are and make an independent, honest statement. And that has in turn forced even smaller, aspirational and independently created political parties to join either of the two ‘big’, corrupt political camps thereby stripping them of all their claims to independence and idealism. If you are to make yourself heard under the FPTP, you have no choice but to join either of the two largest camps and make a statement or else, even if you have your name in the electoral rolls and the all-powerful Aadhaar registry, you are as good as you don’t exist.