The Indian electoral system, like the United Kingdom, follows the Westminster model. Voters directly elect their representatives to the Lok Sabha and the State Assemblies through the first-past-the-post (FPTP) system of voting. The candidate who gets the highest number of votes, irrespective of the margin, is declared the winner.
In a country with a population of more than one billion, FPTP is considered to be the most viable system due to its simplicity and efficiency. Not only are the votes easy to count and understand in this system, but the FPTP system also ensures that every constituency has one representative who is responsible for the people of that constituency.
Having been a strong proponent of the FPTP system in the Indian political scenario, I have, however, had to rethink my position in recent years. The most obvious case which led to this rethinking in my stance is the 2014 general election. Despite being the third largest party in terms of national vote share, the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) did not get a single seat in the Lok Sabha (20 per cent vote share in Uttar Pradesh = zero seats). This system needs to be re-evaluated.
Cons of the FPTP system
The main issue with the FPTP system is that of legitimacy of the elected representatives sent to Parliament by a minority of voters. Because the winning margin is irrelevant, candidates with vote share as low as 16.5% (MK Khanna, Shahjahanpur, 1967) have gone on to become elected representatives of constituencies. The same logic applies to governments, who, thanks to the disproportionality effect of the FPTP system, have always obtained a majority of seats with a minority of votes. Even in the 2014 ‘Modi wave’, only 31 per cent of the total voters actually voted in favour of the BJP.
Another adverse consequence of the “winner takes all” nature of the FPTP system is that it rewards parties who target and treat preferentially specific segments of the electorate i.e. vote banks rather than the majority of electors. The system thus rewards divisive electoral strategies and encourages parties to field tainted candidates.
Germany adopted what is known as the Mixed Member Proportional system of voting. The system is an amalgamation of personal vote in single-member districts (constituencies) and the principle of proportional representation
Are better voting models available?
Proportional representation (PR) is one alternative suggested by critics to overcome the shortcoming of the FPTP system. It has many variants. For example, in the list system, each voter is invited to indicate a preference, or a ranking, of several candidates, within a list submitted by a party. Each party is granted seats in proportion to the number of votes it receives. Another variant of this system is the closed list system, which enables voters to opt for the party as a whole rather than vote for specific candidates. In the open list system, voters can choose to not only vote for a party but also rank candidates within that party’s declared list of candidates.
There are various problems in following the list system (both open and closed) in the case of India. With the first party rarely obtaining more than 30-35 per cent of the total votes, government formation could become difficult. Further, in the closed list system, parties determine which candidates are elected by placing them at the top of the list. The system thus guarantees that influential party members get easily elected. In such a system, candidates would rather woo their party leaders, to obtain a favourable position on the list, rather than woo the voters.
Owing to the problems that lie with both the FPTP and the PR system of voting, a mixed model which combines the advantages of both FPTP and PR system seems to be worth considering. Different variants of the mixed method are followed in Germany, Sri Lanka and Nepal. In 1949, Germany adopted what is known as the Mixed Member Proportional system of voting. The system is an amalgamation of personal vote in single-member districts (constituencies) and the principle of proportional representation. Theoretically, the parliament has 299 constituencies and 598 seats. Every voter has two votes. The first vote allows the elector to vote for a direct candidate of their constituency. The candidate who gets the highest number of votes is declared as elected (through FPTP). The second vote allows the elector to vote for a party. It is this second vote which determines the power of parties in the parliament.
The electoral model followed in Sri Lanka to elect its parliament is an Open List Proportional System. In Sri Lanka, voters may choose to vote for a party or a candidate within a party. Of the 225 seats, 196 are elected in multi-winner districts with 4 to 19 members. The remaining 29 national seats are used to ensure that the number of seats each party wins is proportional to the number of votes they won.
Nepal follows what is called a ‘parallel system’ that combines elements of FPTP and PR systems. Parallel voting describes a mixed electoral system where voters in effect participate in two separate elections for a single chamber using different systems, and where the results in one election have little or no impact on the results of the other. Of the 275 members in Nepal’s House of Representatives — its counterpart to the Lok Sabha — 165 members are elected through the FPTP system and 110 through the PR system.
The mixed method offers a viable alternative to overcome the shortcomings of both the FPTP and the PR system. The flaws in the FPTP system are out in the open and there is a need to consider alternate methods of voting. The cases cited above may or may not be the best fit for India. Whatever method we choose, it must replicate the simplicity of the FPTP system and at the same time address its shortcomings. India can invent its own mixed model to fit its political culture and specificities. A dose of proportional representation would avoid the complete side-lining of important political forces. It would also push parties to collaborate in coalition and alliances, rather than enable them to convert minority of votes into majority of seats. What matters most with electoral systems is that they should ensure that voters retain their trust in the system and do not doubt the legitimacy of their leaders.
(SY Quraishi is a former chief election commissioner of India. He is the author of the book An Undocumented Wonder – The Great Indian Election)