When, according to WikiLeaks, US ambassador Timothy Roemer reported back to Washington, DC a remark apparently made to him by Union home minister P. Chidambaram, to the effect that India’s overall growth, led by the states of the south and west, was being slowed by the north, he was hardly transmitting a state secret. Yet, predictably and unthinkingly, political parties, especially northern ones like the Samajwadi Party, responded with pieties about how national unity and integrity were being put under threat—by a cabinet minister speaking the truth.
For the differences between north and south are a glaring and integral fact of contemporary India, manifest in the rates of economic growth, quality of governance and of life, and now further confirmed by the 2011 census figures on the demographic imbalance between the regions. The Indian Union is indeed moving along distinct tracks—and, beyond the more familiar Bharat/India divide, it is the north/south one that may prove unexpectedly consequential.
Also Read Sunil Khilnani’s previous Lounge columns
In the 20 years since liberalization got under way in 1991, the average decadal population growth in Uttar Pradesh (UP) and Bihar—two states that account for around a quarter of India’s total population—was around 25%. On the other hand, in the states of Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and Kerala—which make up around 16% of the total population—the figure was around half of that. More specifically, between 2001 and 2011, Kerala, with some of the best human indicators, grew by just under 5%, while Bihar grew by over 25%.
Chock-a-block: The 2011 census shows that Kerala’s (right) population grew by under 5% in the past decade; and India, with a population of 1.21 billion, now has 17% of the world’s people. Manish Swarup/AP
The good news in the 2011 census data is that for the first time there has been a fall in the population growth rates of the northern states. The flattening out of population growth, which began in the southern states, is now spreading to other parts of the country—though stabilization of the population is still far away. “The road to a stationary population before 2060”, the provisional census analysis notes, “is long and arduous and would require intense efforts.” The fact remains that India’s population still continues to grow at higher rates in the north: rates that are well above those in the southern states, and also above the national average.
Why should the unevenness between north and south matter? The spread of the market, and India’s aggregate economic growth, is after all in many ways serving to integrate the country’s economy. The southern states and the more prosperous northern states depend upon migrant labour as well as on resources and commodities that come from the less-developed parts of the country—mainly the large northern and central states. In a recent ringing defence of the poorer and slower growing north’s utility to the overall functioning of the Indian economy, sociologist Dipankar Gupta declared: “Whether it is raw material or raw manpower, it is the drab north that gives the south that certain glow.” This is absolutely true.
But the north-south disparity gets more tricky and less mutually enhancing when we move beyond economic and functional utilities, and start to consider the political consequences of India’s demographic imbalance—in particular, what it means for the continuing legitimacy of our system of political representation.
In a democracy, everyone’s vote is equal; and in the Westminster electoral system we have adopted, the 543 representatives elected to the Lok Sabha represent territorial constituencies, each of which is supposed to contain as near as possible the same number of individual voters as all the others. It’s that distribution that allows the possibility for each vote, wherever in the country it might be cast, to count equally. On the basis of Census 2011, each parliamentarian should represent some 2.2 million Indians: though staggeringly large by the standards of most democracies, that ought to be the average size of our electoral constituencies given Parliament’s current size.
But India’s demographic map and its democratic cartography no longer overlap—and in fact they are increasingly drifting apart.
If we simply take the aggregate state-level figures, the discrepancies are easily seen. Take the state of UP: With a population of 200 million, it has 80 Lok Sabha seats, which means roughly one Lok Sabha representative for every 2.5 million inhabitants of that state. Kerala, with a population of 33 million, has 20 seats in the Lok Sabha: roughly one parliamentarian for 1.65 million from that state, while in Tamil Nadu the figure is one for 1.84 million (of course, actual constituency sizes vary from these average figures, given only for illustrative purposes).
Beginning with state assembly elections in 2008, we did see the introduction of new delimitations to state assembly constituencies, with a view to recalibrating the balance between voters and their representatives—in particular, to correct the imbalance in urban areas, which have grown disproportionately rapidly in population but had not gained more representative voice.
The process of delimiting new constituencies always and everywhere attracts suspicion and distrust. It’s been the object of one of the old arts of democratic chicanery, gerrymandering, and it’s a process in which there will always be losers. Yet the 2008-09 delimitation exercise was deftly managed by the Election Commission: Quietly done, it drew little criticism—an example of India’s capacity for reform by stealth.
The lesson we should draw is that such delicate changes are best accomplished gradually and incrementally, allowing for a constant, gentle revision of the units and scale of electoral representation. In the face of real and massive social changes which the census tracks for us, such revision of our institutions—rebuilding them while we inhabit them—needs to be ingrained in our democratic culture. It will encourage a more healthy democratic progress of our polity, rather than the convulsive, reactive approach to which we seem prone. The Constitution recognized the need for regular revisibility of the scale of India’s units of representation in the light of census data. Such revision, if enacted, would also help to introduce a certain rational predictability to how governments define the relationship between the numbers and distribution of India’s citizenry and their elected representatives.
Yet, since the 1970s, Parliament has put in abeyance this spirit of revision, more out of cowardice than prudence. Fearful of a north and south confrontation over seat recalibration, it chose most recently—in 2002—to do nothing at all until the first census exercise after 2026: which means in effect not until sometime after the details of the 2031 census are made available.
This is a case of collective ostrichification if ever there was one. Even with some reduction in the divergence between the population growth rates of the north and south, the disproportion in political representation will continue to grow—and the gap will widen in the next 30 years. Delay simply piles up the difficulties that will ultimately need unravelling, and makes more disruptive and conflictual resolutions likely.
In the search for how to give institutional form to the widening north–south gap, several solutions are possible. The least imaginative would be to simply rebalance national representation towards the north, while keeping the existing numbers of seats in Parliament. This is likely to be the most divisive option, since it will mean actually taking away seats from southern states. More effective might be to increase the overall number of parliamentary seats (just as the number of districts has been increased by almost 50 in the past decade)—from 543 to, say, 649 or even more. Another possibility would be to strengthen the Rajya Sabha’s original identity: which was, like the US senate, to serve as an arena to give equal representation to the interests of the states, no matter how large or small—a function that it has virtually ceased to fulfil. More radical, but also perhaps most effective of all, would be to break up our monster states into smaller, administratively viable and also politically more legitimate units (do we need a UP more populous than Brazil?). This is going to be an unavoidable imperative in coming years—and we should use the opportunity it presents to create more, better-sized, and evenly distributed electoral constituencies.
Each of these solutions would bring their own ensuing problems and dilemmas. Both expanding the numbers of parliamentarians, and increasing the number of states, will inevitably accentuate coordination and collective action problems already faced by government. But when the legitimacy of the democratic system is at stake, we need to reinvent in advance rather than retroactively struggle to preserve.
This year, another country with a massive disjuncture between north and south is celebrating the 150th anniversary of its unification. Italy’s enduring inability to resolve the problem of the Mezzogiorno—that shadow-line across the Italian peninsula that has served as a barrier to the south’s opportunity and growth—goes some way to explaining that country’s dysfunctional politics, and it has led recent historians of the country to argue that Italy should never have been unified at all. There have always been some in India who have pressed similar claims about the Indian Union—claims that will need constant and active refutation.
The census is an extraordinary exercise in producing a snapshot of India as a unified whole—even as it alerts us to the disparate parts. As the results come in, Census 2011 will hold many lessons. A clear one is that the institutional architecture of our representative democracy simply does not reflect the uneven demographic sprawl of our citizenry—and it needs to come into line sooner rather than later.
Sunil Khilnani is director-designate, India Institute, King’s College, London. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org