Context: India’s parliamentary democracy is going through a phase of intense confrontation between the dominant ruling party and a weakened but belligerent Opposition.
- Some say that this situation is a consequence of the first-past-the-post (FPTP) system, where a party with the highest votes gets the seat even if it doesn't win a majority.
- In 2014, the National Democratic Alliance led by the Bharatiya Janata Party won 336 seats with only 38.5% of the popular vote.
Emergence of a second dominant party system in India
At the national level, 2014 marked the end of a 25-year period of a coalition/minority government. And post-2014, there was the emergence of a second dominant party system.
- The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) became the central pole of Indian politics ever since it came to power at the Centre in 2014.
- The hegemony enjoyed by the Congress in the 1950s and ’60s gave way to trends in Indian politics such as federalisation and regionalisation.
- The similarity is in the vote share numbers garnered by the dominant party and in its capacity to fragment the Opposition.
The critics of the FPTP system have called for reexamining this constitutional choice and have argued for adopting the system of proportional representation. They believe that this system is undemocratic and unrepresentative of diverse identities.
The first-past-the-post (FPTP) system
- The Indian constitution adopts the first-past-the-post (FPTP) system of elections, otherwise known as simple majority where a candidate with the most number of votes from a constituency wins the seat.
- It is also known as the simple majority system.
This system is used in India in direct elections to the Lok Sabha and State Legislative Assemblies.
The advantages and benefits of a FPTP voting system
- Voter’s convenience: It’s simple to understand.In a political environment, FPTP enables voters to clearly express a view on which party they think should form the next government.
- Lesser expenditure: It doesn’t cost much to administer.
- It’s is fairly quick to count the votes and work out who has won; meaning results can be declared relatively quickly after the polls close.
Issues with FPTP system
- It does not always allow for a truly representative mandate, as the candidate could win despite securing less than half the votes in a contest.
- The FPTP system tends to magnify the seat share of the party with the largest vote share, while parties receiving a lower vote share tend to get a much lower seat share.
- The disproportionate number of seats accrued by a party despite a lower vote share.
- The other issue with the FPTP is that the threshold is so high that newer parties cannot enter the fray.
- Breeds Two-Party system: Duverger, a French political scientist, argued that the FPTP system tends to bring about a two-party system at the constituency level. In countries like India, this translated into the establishment of a two-party system at the State level which happened between 1967 and 1989.
But the FPTP system can’t be blamed for polarisation in Indian Politics. Polarisation is linked to the politicisation of certain social cleavages.
Proportional representation system (PR)
- This refers to an electoral system in which the distribution of seats corresponds closely with the proportion of the total votes cast for each party.
- This is a more complicated but representative system than the first-past-the-post (FPTP) system, which is used in India.
- If a party gets 40% of the total votes, for example, a perfectly proportional system would allow it to get 40% of the seats. Some countries used a combination of the proportional representation system and the FPTP system.
- FPTP is currently used to elect members of the House of Commons in the UK, both chambers of the US Congress and the lower houses in both Canada and India.
Advantages of PR system
This system avoids the anomalous results of plurality/majority systems and is better able to produce a representative legislature.
- Facilitate minority parties’ access to representation. Unless the threshold is unduly high, or the district magnitude is unusually low, then any political party with even a small percentage of the vote can gain representation in the legislature.
- This fulfils the principle of inclusion, which can be crucial to stability in divided societies and has benefits for decision making in established democracies, such as achieving a more balanced representation of minorities in decision-making bodies and providing role models of minorities as elected representatives.
- Encourage parties to campaign beyond the districts in which they are strong or where the results are expected to be close.
- The incentive under PR systems is to maximize the overall vote regardless of where those votes might come from. Every vote, even from areas where a party is electorally weak, goes towards gaining another seat.
- Restrict the growth of ‘regional fiefdoms’. Because PR systems reward minority parties with a minority of the seats, they are less likely to lead to situations where a single party holds all the seats in a given province or district.
Issues with Proportional representation system
- Logistical difficulties: First, as certain constituencies have a large population, its implementation becomes impractical and administratively difficult.
- India’s poor literacy rate: This system may be too ‘advanced’ for our nation which had a poor literacy rate.
- Threatens the stability of the government.
- Coalition governments, which in turn lead to legislative gridlock and consequent inability to carry out coherent policies.
- A destabilizing fragmentation of the party system. PR can reflect and facilitate a fragmentation of the party system. It is possible that extreme pluralism can allow tiny minority parties to hold larger parties to ransom in coalition negotiations.
- The proportional representation (PR) system in Europe and elsewhere, where seats are allocated roughly in accordance with the vote share, also produces distinct polarisations.
- The 1978 Sri Lankan Constitution instituted the PR system. Since then, there has been ethnic polarisation despite the small parties getting seat shares higher than what they would have received in a FPTP system.
- Similarly in Israel, which also enjoys a thoroughgoing PR system, there is severe polarisation in ethnic, religious and political terms.
Reasons behind Deteriorating relations between the ruling party and the Opposition
- The confrontational situation in Parliament and other legislatures has heightened in the last couple of years.
- This is due to the sharpening of the ideological level in politics, which reflects the cleavages in the society, and to the suspicion that the fundamentals of the system are being sought to be changed.
- One of the general reasons for the adversarial relations between the ruling party and the Opposition is the failure in institutionalising the parliamentary system, which presupposes a certain negotiation, a spirit of give and take and continuous deliberation between the ruling party and the Opposition.
- Weakening state parties and federal relations
- Also, the ability of Central government in the last three decades to directly transfer resources to local bodies in the States bypassing the State government besides controlling the administrations of the States has weakened the State parties’ ability to take on the Central government.
Constitutional safeguards against executive’s dominance
There is a perception that the ruling party is pushing against the constitutional consensus, which is fairly strong in our system.
- There are about three and a half layers of protection to the basic structure of our Constitution.
- The government needs a two-thirds majority in both Houses subject to the presence of at least 50% of the House in attendance.
- Then, it has to go through judicial review.
- Finally, for some articles on Centre-State relations, it has to pass them through half the State Assemblies.
FPTP system with a preference rule system: In the Australian electoral system the first choice party with the plurality vote share will receive second/third choices of the voter in a process of elimination from the bottom, till it reaches the 50% threshold to be declared the winner.
- Such an alternative system should be assessed in terms of the ease of its use for the voters.
- But we must keep in mind that putting an extra burden on the voter in the act of voting is unfair.
- Making the political system adequately competitive: Then that aspect of the FPTP system gets politically neutralised and parties tend to get a share of seats which is roughly commensurate to their vote share also.
- Safeguards for smaller parties: We can have 10% of the seats in the legislature which are included based on the parties’ vote shares. This will ensure an entry point for smaller/ newer parties and keep the political system more competitive.
The larger point is if we artificially try to make the political system fairer, the natural competitiveness gets distorted and that is why India should generally prefer FPTP, both on the grounds of voters’ convenience and a natural competitiveness being allowed in the system.There is sufficient diversity at the societal level. There is the theory that in a socially diverse country, the party system will be diverse — it will not be limited to a two-party system.
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