The recent events in Parliament offer us an opportunity to reflect on the state of our politics and the reforms needed. Three features stand out in the two-day debate and vote on the trust motion.
First, the ending of nuclear isolation and entering into civilian nuclear agreements with the International Atomic Energy Agency and the Nuclear Suppliers Group should have been discussed in a non-partisan manner. Instead, short-term political calculations, and not the merits of the deal, determined the attitudes of parties and members of Parliament.
Illustration: Malay Karmakar / Mint
Second, with the survival of the government at stake, whips were issued forcing members to blindly toe the party line even as they knew it ran counter to the country’s interests. Predictably, most cross-voting was not on principle, but was induced by money and lure of office.
Third, the horse-trading and open flaunting of money in front of television cameras exposed the weaknesses of our political system. Since cynicism and despair will take us nowhere, we have to focus on serious political reform.
Politics has become big business involving astronomical election expenditure on garnering votes with money and liquor, and, therefore, cannot be fixed by political funding reform. In fact, India has a sound law facilitating contributions to parties. But most contributions are still clandestine, and election expenditure in some states — notably Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu — is often 50-100 times the ceiling. Typically, each major party candidate in Andhra Pradesh will spend about Rs5 crore in the next assembly elections, whereas the legal limit is Rs10 lakh!
In our winner-takes-all electoral system, the candidate who receives most votes is elected, and the votes cast for other candidates and parties are not valued at all. So there is intense pressure to reach a high threshold of votes at any cost, and fierce competition to buy the marginal vote at enormous expense. The need to somehow get a few thousand more votes to ensure victory is translated into distributing large sums of money and liquor, using muscle power and offering sops such as free rice and television sets.
In this unholy climate, electoral politics is a frightening prospect for the best and brightest. Only those with vast sums of ill-gotten and unaccounted money can enter the fray and hope to succeed. Predictably, in the high-risk political business, multiple returns on investment are assured. It does not mean vast, illegitimate expenditure in elections guarantees victory, but sticking to rules almost certainly means defeat. There is a huge entry barrier in politics, given the wrong incentives. Inevitably, politics has largely become the preserve of the enormously wealthy and corrupt, criminals, and political dynasties.
During the freedom struggle, India boasted of the finest leadership in the world. Today, honesty and survival in public office are increasingly incompatible.
Our first-past-the-post electoral system is also causing the decline of national parties and leading to political fragmentation. In our system, if a party’s vote share falls below a threshold — of, say, 35% — its seat share declines disproportionately. Once a national party loses its vote share significantly, it is difficult to regain it. In a winner-take-all system, people tend to vote with their fears, not their hopes. The desire to keep some other party out of office is far more powerful than the interest to elect the best candidate or party. In such a situation, national parties have a difficult choice: whether or not to forge electoral alliances with regional ones. If a party forges an alliance, its electoral contest is limited to a few seats, and the party slowly withers away, because in politics you don’t exist if you don’t contest. If it does not forge an alliance, its vote share is too small to give it any seats, and national power eludes it. You are damned if you do, and damned if you don’t!
This is the principal cause of the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) being elbowed out of many large states such as Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, West Bengal and Tamil Nadu. In Maharashtra, both national parties are increasingly playing second fiddle to their regional partners. In Andhra Pradesh, only the Congress is dominant. The Idea of India is in peril, and the Congress and the BJP have stakes in changing the rules of the game.
Some form of proportional representation system will change the incentives and promote a virtuous cycle in politics. If a party’s seat share in each state is decided on the basis of its vote share, then things will start changing. Marginal votes will no longer be all-important, as the share of votes in the state, and not the largest number of votes in a constituency, will matter. Therefore, both vote buying and competitive populism will be reduced significantly. Once the election outcome depends on a party’s image and vote share, the best and brightest can once again be attracted to politics as a calling. Campaigning will be on ideas and issues, not on sectarian appeal. The national parties can become politically viable in all the states and get a decent share of votes. Coalitions will be far more stable.
There is only one downside to proportional representation. In a diverse, caste-ridden society, if even a small share of votes is electorally rewarded, it may lead to the rise of caste-based parties. This problem can be overcome by fixing a reasonable threshold requirement of, say, 10% of the vote in a state, below which a party will not get seats in legislature. Happily, all these changes can be accomplished by a mere amendment of electoral law.
Recent events provide us a great opportunity to find win-win solutions that promote honest politics and benefit national parties. Will Sonia Gandhi, Manmohan Singh, A.B. Vajpayee, L.K. Advani and their colleagues bury the hatchet and reverse the drift? Or will it be politics as usual?
Jayaprakash Narayan is president, Lok Satta Party — New Politics for the New Generation. Comment at firstname.lastname@example.org