Saturday, May 12, 2007


Among other things, there are two significant pointers I find noticeable from the BSP’s spectacular victory in Uttar Pradesh assembly elections. One is that the party’s victory based on its appeal to caste identities should not be confused with the general discomfort of the elite (including me) with the election campaign based on appeal to caste and religious identities. I have argued in my earlier post why there is a dire need to fill a serious lacuna in the RPA. My concern was not to restrict the kind of electoral strategy successfully adopted by the BSP. Kanchan Chandra’s article in Indian Express today succinctly sums up this strategy. It is inclusive, and not divisive; therefore, such appeals are welcome, as it brings to the mainstream hitherto marginalized groups from the political process. My concern is rather to restrict such election campaign which encourages caste and religious groups to vote enbloc to this or that party, because the opponent parties cater to other influential castes and religious groups.
The second pointer is somewhat more significant. It has led me to revise my initial enthusiasm for the Proportional Representation, or at least to look at it with some skepticism. I had earlier argued on this blog in favour of PR and Mr.Arun Thiruvengadam had expressed his misgivings. I went through his response again, and the link which he had provided then is instructive. The relevant link for my earlier post on PR is here.
If anything, Mayawati’s victory in U.P. signifies the miracle of the first-past-the-post system. The BSP would not have secured 206 seats to form a Government on its own had there been PR. PR would have given the BSP just 123 seats in a House of 403 seats, if the voting percentage secured by the BSP (30.45) (as reported in Times of India) is translated into number of seats. The winner-takes-all phenomenon may be inappropriate if we just consider the representative element in a democracy. But for a plural society like ours, where the marginalized groups like Dalits aspire for a larger political role than what they have enjoyed so far, the winner-takes-all phenomenon must be considered as the democracy’s gift for their rising political aspirations. Call it a short-cut to victory, or representation disproportionate to its voting share, this electoral miracle is fully justified, even if it disproportionately reduces the seat-tally of the other groups in society, as compared to their share in the voting percentage.
European analyst Frank Glodek, in a letter to the Central Europe Review, May 2000, noted:
Proportional representation is particularly dangerous in any nation that has suffered from ethnic, ideological or religious divisions, virtually compelling people to vote along these pre-established lines, regardless of whether they know it to be destructive and of their preference to do otherwise. Not even a five percent vote threshold for a party to hold seats in parliament is a barrier to these voting patterns and their negative impact.
Why? When you have proportional representation, you must assume the ‘others’ will vote ethnically, putting you at risk. The only way to protect yourself is by doing the same…
A proportional representation system can never unite so many diverse nations and peoples effectively, as it is inherently and unavoidably biased toward extremism, instability, immoderation and ineffectiveness. … People forget that the United States was, from the outset, a multi-ethnic and multi-religious country."
The winner-takes-all system has been tried and tested. No doubt, it has its shortcomings. But I would be reluctant to suggest its complete replacement by PR just because of its aberrations. Limited trial of PR is fine; but only limited.
The Chief Election Commissioner has told Shekhar Gupta in the Walk the Talk programme on NDTV that he preferred the follow-on election between the winner and the runner-up in those constituencies where the winner secured less than 50 per cent of the votes cast. The President, A.P.J.Abdul Kalam has reportedly favoured the two-party system. Both the views, if accepted, would have deprived the BSP its spectacular victory, and the nation, an interesting surprise. We need surprises like this to make democracy an interesting experiment in this plural society. The reforms suggested would only make it monotonous, introducing an element of predictability in the system, offering little incentive for the subaltern to participate in the electoral process.


Red said...

It might be useful if we look at how PR has worked in South Asia. Sri Lanka's lesson with proportional representation hasn't made politics any less messier. In many ways the political scene is similiar to India, two dominant coalitions, a plethora of parties based on community and personality appeals, and a significant disenchanted minority.

Sri Lanka's elections, based on Proportional Representation and the List System, make ruling parties dependent on minority parties i.e. the Tamils, the Muslims,the Sinahla Nationalists and the "leftists". Perhaps Vikram or Arun have any insights?

Incidentally, PR would increase power of the Muslim vote. Currently Muslims comprise some 13% of the population but they hold only 6% of seats in Parliament.

ravi srinivas said...
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