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How representative are our representatives?

How representative are our representatives?
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First Published: Wed, Mar 18 2009. 05 43 AM IST

Updated: Wed, Mar 18 2009. 04 51 PM IST
New Delhi: Omar Abdullah, a politician belonging to the National Conference, represents the Srinagar constituency in the Lok Sabha. The constituency, in Jammu and Kashmir, has around one million voters, of which some 180,000 voted in the last elections. Abdullah won the seat with 98,422 votes, which is about 50% of the votes cast. But he represents less than 10% of the total electorate in his constituency.
Abdullah isn’t unique. He is representative of a phenomenon brought about by low voter turnout and the fragmentation of the vote, itself the result of the emergence of regional, even local, parties. In 1951, 53 registered parties contested elections to the first Lok Sabha. In 2004, 230 parties contested the elections.
Also See Shrinking Share (Graphic)
The situation is worse in the states, according to a study by the Centre for Media Studies, or CMS, a New Delhi-based research firm. The 403-member state assembly of Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state, has just 12 representatives who won at least 50% of the vote in their constituencies. And 18 representatives in the assembly won less than 30% of the vote. The study also found that at least eight of the country’s biggest states have governments that won less than 40% of the popular vote.
“The representative character of elected representatives has been declining consistently. Many states have governments that could not even bag at least 30% of the total votes polled,” said N. Bhaskar Rao, chairman of CMS.
“Not even half the Lok Sabha members won with 50% of polled votes, which means they represent hardly 30% of the electorate in their constituency or even less, depending on the turnout.”
To be sure, this also means that around half the members of the current Lok Sabha won at least 50% of the votes cast in their constituency, but this number has to be seen in the context of voter turnout. In 2004, only 56% of India’s 670 million voters turned up to cast votes, down from almost 62% in 1998 and 60% in 1999.
The situation is unlikely to change in the coming elections to key states and the Lok Sabha polls scheduled for 2009. According to the Election Commission, the constitutional body that oversees elections, at least 500 new parties have been registered since 2004.
“The increase in the number of regional players and voters’ interest in elections, which is different from place to place, are the reasons (for the unrepresentative nature of representation),” said V. Kishore Chandra Deo, a Lok Sabha representative belonging to the Congress party.
The chief whip of the Congress in the Lok Sabha, Madhusudan Mistry, too, blames increasing choice and lack of voter interest.
The emergence of regional and local parties representing the interests of a state or even a particular caste or community within it have changed the mathematics of representation, according to Seshadri Chari, a leader of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the main national opposition party.
“Earlier, Dalits and Muslims used to vote for the Congress. Later, it (this vote) was shared by the BSP (Bahujan Samaj Party) and the Samajwadi Party. What was the Congress vote is (now) fragmented into four or five,” Chari said.
Some countries get around this problem by mandating that winning representatives have to win in excess of 50% of the vote.
That may not work in India, said Deo. “Can we afford a re-election if the candidate has not won 50% plus one. How many elections we will have to declare null and void?”
Deo said the real issue was the complete lack of interest in voting among urban areas and among “the affluent class”. Rao added that such people were part of a phenomenon he described as “drawing room democracy”, where the involvement of voters was restricted to opinion polls in papers and television channels.
Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi, a BJP leader who was elected for a third term in 2007 in an election that saw a turnout of 59.77%, has suggested that voting be made compulsory.
Chari agrees.
“Voting can be made mandatory. But it should not appear to be coercive.”
Popular electoral systems
First past the post
The winning candidate is the one who gets more votes than any other candidate, even if this is not an absolute majority.
Countries that use this system include India, Bangladesh, Canada, the UK and the US.
Parallel systems
The choices expressed by voters are used to elect representatives through two different systems—the list proportional representative system and plurality system—but where no account is taken of the seats won in the first system in calculating the results in the second system.
Under a list proportional representation system, each party presents a list of candidates for a multi-member electoral district, the voters vote for a party, and parties receive seats in proportion to their overall share of the vote. Under the plurality system, a second election is held if no candidate or party achieves a given level of votes, typically, an absolute majority (50% plus one), in the first round.
Countries that use this system include Pakistan, Japan and Russia.
Block vote
Electors have as many votes as there are candidates. The candidates with the highest vote totals win the seats.
Countries using this system include Kuwait and Mauritius.
Single transferable vote
The single transferable vote is a preferential system in which the voter has one vote in a multi-member district and candidates who surpass a specified quota of “first preference” votes are immediately elected. In successive counts, votes are redistributed from least successful candidates, who are eliminated, and from successful candidates in excess of what they need to get elected, until a sufficient number of candidates are elected. Voters normally vote for candidates rather than political parties, although a party-list option is possible.
Countries that use this system include Ireland and Malta.
Two-round system
The two-round system is a plurality/majority system in which a second election is held if no candidate or party achieves a given level of votes, most commonly an absolute majority (50% plus one), in the first election round.
Countries that use this system include France, Cuba and Iran.
Source: Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, Sweden
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First Published: Wed, Mar 18 2009. 05 43 AM IST