Some votes are more equal than others

Asianage, April 17, 2019

Governments game the system to keep potentially unfriendly voters out. Citizens in remote locations might be overlooked and so on.
One wo(man) one vote” is the nominal cornerstone of our democracy. But in practice the elective power of a vote varies significantly across states. On the surface, we are very democratic — elections are held regularly and voter enthusiasm has not waned unlike elsewhere.

Voter turnout — the proportion of those on the electoral list who cast their vote — increased from 56.9 per cent in 1980 to 66 per cent in 2014 even though a mindboggling 478 million electors were added between 1980 and 2014.

Millennial Indian voters seem more eager to participate in democracy than their parents. Kudos are due for this pleasant outcome to the Election Commission of India’s proactive management of the largest ever carnival of free political choice.

Of course, gaps remain. Not all eligible voters get onto the electoral lists. Registration procedures are daunting. Governments game the system to keep potentially unfriendly voters out. Citizens in remote locations might be overlooked and so on.

But two big distortions in our framework for political equity are particularly distressing. One big failure is our first-past-the post system of elections. This encourages well endowed and savvy political parties to actively fracture the vote, thereby making their vote haul the biggest — never mind if it remains even below the halfway mark.

Indira Gandhi‘s “historic comeback” in 1980 with a “mandate” of 71.8 per cent of the Lok Sabha seats was based on just 42.7 per cent of the valid vote. Similarly, the BJP’s 2014 “massive mandate” of 52 per cent of the Lok Sabha seats was based on a vote share of just 31.3 per cent. A “massive” win in the Lok Sabha is possible without a groundswell of matching voter support. This makes a mockery of the “one person one vote” credo.

The resulting inequity matters the most in national elections. Governments with minority voter support routinely abrogate the right to represent the residual majority — an unnecessary, forced abdication of individual voting power, brought about by electoral rules, which generate perverse incentives.

Each state has a mix of cultures, sometimes languages and often ethnicity and religion. An electoral system which facilitates a party to appeal to a narrow segment of voters and still win is primed to exclude “others” because they don’t matter.

The second distortion is that the “elective power” of a vote varies across states. This is somewhat inevitable because of a lag between the decadal population census and the five-yearly revision of the electoral role and thereby the allocation of Lok Sabha seats to each state. But much of the skew versus change in population results from a flawed “administrative solution”, forged during the Emergency in 1976 to punish states with higher than average population growth.

The 42nd Amendment to Article 82 of the Constitution froze the 1971 seat allocation for the next 30 years till after 2001. In 2002, the 84th Amendment to the Constitution extended the freeze to after 2026 — kicking the can further down the road by 26 years. This effectively robbed two generations of voters of their true representative power in the Lok Sabha in states where population growth was higher than the average.

This asymmetry fractures the political ecosystem into “haves” — mostly coastal states, border states like Punjab and in the Northeast — and the “have-nots” in western and central India. Since fertility usually varies inversely to economic productivity, these poorer states suffered political apartheid in addition to relative loss of income and wealth.

Voters in Sikkim or Arunachal Pradesh have four times the average elective power — fewer voters per Lok Sabha seat mean higher elective power. Voters in Goa, Chandigarh, Mizoram and Meghalaya have twice as much elective power as the average voter broadly represented by West Bengal, Jharkhand, Uttarakhand and Tamil Nadu.

Meanwhile, the elective power per vote in Delhi, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Karnataka, Haryana, Chhattisgarh, Bihar and Gujarat is 15 to 5 per cent lower than the average. Not surprisingly, it is here that the BJP tapped into the ensuing sullen resentment and scored its biggest electoral victories in 2014.

It is time to fast-forward the redistribution of Lok Sabha seats on a more equitable basis. But we also need to factor in that our population has doubled over the last five decades. An average parliamentary constituency with 1.5 million electors per member of Parliament (MP) is unmanageable. The number of seats should be doubled, thereby halving the electors per MP to around 750,000 on average, which is close to what Meghalaya has today. Nine small states/Union territories enjoy even fewer electors per MP.

MPs cannot be responsive to their electorates, nor can fledgling political parties get a fighting chance unless the electoral battle becomes affordable for conscientious candidates who have the aptitude but not the money. Humungous constituencies like those in Uttar Pradesh — on average with 1.8 million electors per MP — become a “money game” and should be whittled down. Considerations of equity and operational efficiency point towards smaller constituencies.

More MPs would overcrowd the existing Parliament House. That is easily dealt with. The physical presence of MPs in Delhi should be staggered, such that one-half are always in their constituencies. State of the art “democracy complexes” in each constituency can connect MPs digitally via video conferencing to attend Parliament remotely.

The everyday processes of democratic functioning — voting, raising questions with ministers replying and parliamentary committee meetings — all of which remain invisible today, could be brought closer than ever before to the constituents carefully watching the performance of their MP in person and the digital proceedings of Parliament streamed live to every constituency.

The existing, embarrassing digital gap between the e-sophistication of electoral campaigns and the archaic governance practices docilely followed by politicians, once in government, must be bridged. Structured electoral inequity breeds resentment. It should be nipped in the bud by enhancing the elective power of a vote in states where it has been debased by design.

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