So, the ball is set rolling for India’s 17th Lok Sabha elections. The Election Commission (EC) has urged voters to vote freely, fearlessly, and make an informed and ethical choice. The numbers are staggering: 900 million eligible voters, a million voting booths, 10 million election officials (not counting security personnel), an expected 10,000 candidates for 545 seats, and more than 500 political parties in the fray.
No wonder it’s called a festival.
But as we go into campaign season, the atmosphere is less festive and more feisty, even nasty and fractious. The first-past-the-post (FPTP) electoral system seems to encourage polarization, since in a multi-corner contest, even a low vote share is enough to get you elected and this often involves an extreme ideological focus on a core voter base.
One consequence of FPTP is the trend of constituents being micro-targeted with customized messages. Another result is the non-linear relationship between vote share and seat share. Even a 1% vote swing can increase a party’s seat share by 10-15%. The particularly stark case was that of the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), which in 2014 got 20% of Uttar Pradesh’s vote but no single Lok Sabha seat. Electoral reforms are overdue. A comprehensive agenda was laid out by the EC itself in a letter to the prime minister back in July 2004.
Most of it lies unfulfilled, since parliament has not found time in the past 15 years to deliberate on such reforms. The gist of them is to make the process more transparent, disqualify criminal elements, mandate greater disclosure of money power, forge inner-party democracy and raise voter participation. Elections are now vulnerable to the adverse influence of three ‘M’s: money, muscle and media (including the social kind). The EC’s job is to minimize this influence and ensure voting free from fear and coercion, plus a level playing field.
As we look at electoral outcomes, we need to introspect: Just how representative of Indians are our Members of Parliament? The trend over past several Lok Sabhas has been of a widening gap between the people and their representatives. This is a matter of grave concern. Of course, it is nobody’s case that only a poor candidate can represent the poor. Or only a highly educated person can understand the challenge of education in India. Be it MPs or MLAs, elected representatives are agents of the people. In economics lingo, this is a principal-agent problem, where people are the “principal". Whoever they appoint (i.e. elect) has to do their bidding, or at least act in their best interest. In the absence of any other signal of “credibility" or “trustworthiness" from candidates, voters often make choices based on caste, muscle power (to “get things done") or charisma.
To assess representativeness, consider the gaps between electors and the elected on such parameters as age, gender, wealth, criminality, education, dynasty and size of constituency. The average age of the 13th Lok Sabha was 55.5 years, which went down to 52.7 in the 14th, but then went up again to 53 in the 15th, and 56 in the outgoing one. It was only 46.5 years in 1952. India’s median age, however, is just 26. Two-thirds of the population is below 35. Yet our MPs are getting older. In contrast, the so-called ageing countries like the UK, Italy, France and Canada are electing much younger leaders.
On gender, women account for only 12% of the Lok Sabha. At least three states have zero female MPs. Less than 10% of candidates are women. Not so long ago, more than two-thirds of constituencies had no single female candidate. The Women’s Reservation Bill, meanwhile, has been pending in Parliament for over four decades.
On wealth, 82% of all Lok Sabha members are crorepatis, i.e. have declared wealth of more than ₹1 crore. Their numbers have gone up from 156 to 315 to 449 in the last three Lok Sabhas. Their average wealth (declared via self-sworn affidavits) is around ₹14 crore. (In the Rajya Sabha, the average is ₹55 crore). The average income is around ₹31 lakh, which is 20 times India’s present per capita income.
On criminality, the proportion of MPs with criminal cases has been going up steadily, from 12% to 15% to 21%, since 2004. These are cases for which if they were convicted, they would not have been allowed to contest. Many cases are for heinous crimes like rape, murder, kidnapping and extortion. But the law does not bar them from contesting elections, even from prison. Surely, voters cannot accept lawmakers who are themselves lawbreakers. But, only parliament can pass a law to disqualify those with serious criminal charges against them.
On dynasty, it is well known (and documented by Patrick French) that an increasing number of elected representatives have a close relative (parent, spouse, sibling or cousin) who was an incumbent or a senior politician. There are also other measures of representativeness based on identity markers like religion, caste and community that we won’t dwell on here.
Finally, since the size of India’s parliament is frozen, we have a curious anomaly of constituency sizes ranging from a few thousand to over 3 million.
As discussed in this column a year ago, India will soon have to grapple the issue of delimitation of constituencies and increase the number of MPs if it wants to retain the representativeness of parliament that’s essential to democracy.
Ajit Ranade is an economist and senior fellow at the Takshashila Institution.