Monday, March 26, 2007

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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