How fair is the First Past the Post for Indian Democracy?

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NOTA is Revolutionary to Uphold Democratic Values

One particular survey pointed out that in the current Lok Sabha, there are at least 13 MPs, who in terms of voting, enjoy the support of less than 15 % of their respective total electorates. And as there is no obligation on them to serve the interests of those who did not vote for them, a large section goes unrepresented in practical terms. Prof. Ashoka discusses the merit of NOTA in this backdrop, perhaps the only saving grace of our democratic system. A Different Truths exclusive. 

“The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter. Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.” ~ Winston S. Churchill. 

The British statesman in his infinite wisdom summed up the dilemma all of us who live in a democratic set up has to navigate all the time.  

The well-known author James Bovard was even more acerbic: “Democracy must be something more than two wolves and a sheep voting on what to have for dinner.” 

My childhood hero, Bertrand Russel had this to say, “Our great democracies still tend to think that a stupid man is more likely, to be honest than a clever man, and our politicians take advantage of this prejudice by pretending to be even more stupid than nature made them.”  

Democracy by definition is defined by regular elections to be held at regular intervals. And one American statesman had this to say about our own personal responsibility in an electoral process: “Elections belong to the people. It’s their decision. If they decide to turn their back on the fire and burn their behinds, then they will just have to sit on their blisters.” ~ Abraham Lincoln 

Where most of us fail is in of our responsibility towards the electoral process as so appropriately adumbrated by Abe Lincoln. And like many other nation states that have a democratic edifice, we Indians have not exercised the vigilance that is expected from us. 

Elections are effectively meant to ensure proper representation through a mandate. To ensure this, many states have adopted different electoral techniques. For instance, while the United Kingdom persists with the first past the post system, most European countries have settled for proportional representation. Each system has its own advantages and concomitant disadvantages and the preferences usually depend on the societal construct. 

When the Constituent Assembly of India was in session, one of its many responsibilities was to define an electoral process suited to the Indian needs. It was at this stage they considered the merits and demerits of the prevalent electoral systems within the Indian context.  

Eamonn De Valera, the Irish statesman was in regular touch with the President of the Constituent Assembly and Jawaharlal Nehru. The Republic of Ireland had gained its independence from a little more than two decades ago and De Valera had played a crucial role in the framing of the Irish Constitution. His suggestions were always meaningful and it is for this reason the Indian Constitution resembles the Irish Constitution more than any other Constitution in the world.  

When it came to identifying the electoral process, some members of the Assembly felt that the British system (first past the post) should be adopted. De Valera wrote letters to a number of those (including Nehru and the President of the Constituent Assembly) and strongly advised that given the diversity of the Indian electorate, the first past the post system was unlikely to yield positive results and recommended the Irish system of multiple preferences. He pointed out that the Irish Constitution, itself an offshoot of the British Constitution, had differed in this regard. The first past the post Westminster system functioned well in Britain because there was not as much diversity in that country and also because democracy in Britain was at a higher evolutionary stage where it was accepted that once elected, a representative had just as much responsibility towards those of his/her electorates who did not vote in his/her favour as those who did.  

As the argument was cogent, many felt it should be discussed fully but others (which included Nehru and Alladi Krishnaswamy Iyer) in the committee stages felt very strongly that the Westminster system was tried and tested and hence should be adopted in its totality. And that is precisely what happened! 

Looking back through the seven decades of Indian democracy, we clearly made a wrong choice. Hardly any legislator today can claim to enjoy the support of more than 50 % of his/her respective electorate. In fact, one particular survey pointed out that in the current Lok Sabha, there are at least 13 MPs, who in terms of voting, enjoy the support of less than 15 % of their respective total electorates. And as there is no obligation on them to serve the interests of those who did not vote for them, a large section goes unrepresented in practical terms.  

It is this infirmity that leads to vote-banks and they, in turn, are responsible for most of the ills of the society. A representative can be reasonably assured of a comfortable victory by shamelessly creating vote banks and pandering to them. And all the political have been doing this in the past and still persist with it shamelessly! 

The sad part is that while this infirmity is well recognised, there is no incentive to hold a national debate. Many Election Commissioners, both past, and present, have called for electoral reforms but the entire political class has shown complete reluctance; the system suits them to the hilt! 

The took a salutary step in this regard when it recognised that there were people like myself who did not want to be placed in a position where they had to make a choice between the lesser of the two evils and permitted ‘None of the Above’ (NOTA) option.  

From a personal perspective, it provided us the means to express our displeasure with all the candidates in the fray. Prior to this, the only option we had was to spoil the ballot paper to register our protest. NOTA option was looked upon with some disdain by the politicians and their supporters and for a long time was not taken seriously. 

It is this that seems to have changed in the recently help elections at least in Gujarat where NOTA emerged as the third most popular option strongly suggesting that many people wanted to send out a strong message that they were not happy with the choices that were being imposed upon them. That to me has been the biggest gain of these elections.  

On a personal note, apart from 1977, when we had to save our country from a ruthless dictatorship, I have always been uneasy with the choices political parties have offered us and refrained from voting for any political formation. Having opposed the Emergency tooth and nail, I have never forgiven (I) for reducing my country to the biggest concentration camp the world has ever known in modern times. Therefore, I would never vote for them unless I observe contrition and remorse from the party for that atrocity they imposed upon us. That has never been forthcoming; in fact, the half-hearted expressions of regret sporadically spouted are patently insincere. There are still some who continue to defiantly support the Emergency even to this day while others are expediently equivocal. Sad to note that Pranab Mukherjee, our last President falls into that category. And I have deliberately used Congress (I) instead of Indian National Congress as notwithstanding what the Election Commission has to say, I do not believe Congress (I) is the logical successor to the party that fought for national independence; I can see no commonality between them in any sense. 

But if Congress (I) imposed the Emergency, its successors have through decades demonstrated that for a large section, their opposition to Emergency was only an expression of political opportunism. Many of the foremost Emergency culprits are with those parties who opposed the Emergency. And for the campaigners against Emergency like myself, it has always been heart-wrenching to note these culprits being restored to positions of prominence, not just in the Congress (I) governments. 

While most of the population in India was born after the Emergency, and as a result, it does not carry any meaning for them, the overall decline in the polity makes it very difficult to exercise a choice that kindles contentment. I would never vote for Congress (I) for the reasons I have stated. But I would also like to maintain a distance from a party that has no compunction of going into an alliance with a loose confederacy of thugs like the Shiv Sena and the MNS (who in my view represent the very worst of the basal instincts and should not be a part of any political discourse) and for whom concerns about the abysmal state of the nation’s health are low down in the list of priorities as compared to their support for esoteric and symbolic rabble-rousing positions. 

As I belong to Uttar Pradesh, the other choices are a bunch of uncouth individuals who believe that the likes of Azam Khan and Raghuraj Pratap deserve a ministerial berth. Additionally, there are another lot who swear by Ambedkar. Having served as a Professor at Columbia University, I had the opportunity to peruse through Ambedkar’s doctoral thesis which is available at the Schermerhorn Hall Library. And the Ambedkar I find there bears no semblance to the Ambedkar these people project. 

NOTA had, therefore, offered me a viable option as I could not vote for any party with a clear conscience. It is heartening to note that there is an increasing number who have started subscribing to my line of thought.  

The next step in my view should be to approach the Supreme Court and ask them to require a repoll in instances where support for NOTA exceeds all other options. That would be truly revolutionary and in perfect keeping with our commitment to the democratic values. 

©Prof. Ashoka Jahnavi Prasad 

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Prof. Ashoka Jahnavi Prasad

Prof. Ashoka Jahnavi Prasad

Ashoka Jahnavi Prasad is a physician /psychiatrist holding doctorates in pharmacology, history and philosophy plus a higher doctorate. He is also a qualified barrister and geneticist. He is a regular columnist in several newspapers, has published over 100 books and has been described by the Cambridge News as the 'most educationally qualified in the world'.
Prof. Ashoka Jahnavi Prasad
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