Lower voter turnouts and pervasive cynicism about persons elected as legislators have been the bane of advanced industrial democracies. India, it is said, has avoided this fate. The high percentage of people who cast their votes, the intensity of electoral campaigning and the almost festival-like atmosphere say it all.
The reality is somewhat different and sobering. A study by the Centre for Media Studies (CMS), reported in Mint on 10 November, shows that a large number of our members of Parliament (MPs) and members of legislative assemblies (MLAs) get elected with less than 50% of the votes in their constituencies. In fact, in the current Lok Sabha, not even half the members won with 50% of the polled votes. In case the turnout in a constituency is less than 50%, the representative character of the legislator is quite questionable. The situation at the state level in this respect is worse than that for the Lok Sabha.
At a fundamental level, the problem exists because voting in India mostly takes place on caste, regional and religious basis. Because of the size of the population, each such group has enough electoral muscle to squeeze in legislators. The large number of combinations and permutations along these lines ensure that the process of vote fragmentation continues.
This has pernicious consequences for government formation. Each representative group wants a member apiece in the council of ministers. This leads to an environment in which political rent-seeking becomes “normal” behaviour. Poor policy formulation and in many instances, policy paralysis, can be traced to this state of affairs.
When commentators wonder why India has a steady rate of growth even while its governance is going from bad to worse, perhaps this feature of our polity supplies one part of the answer. It’s not bad and greedy ministers who are at the root of the problem; it’s their constituents and their outlook that’s the problem. The comment that “all politicians are the same” is meaningful when viewed thus.
More than 90 years ago, economist Harold Hotelling studied the problem as to why all political parties behave similarly. He gave a mathematical framework for analysing political behaviour but concluded it in one sentence: The cider is too homogeneous.
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