Compulsory voting will draw young voters and is welcome: Loksatta chief
Loksatta party chief Jayaprakash Narayan talks about why the current political system is flawed and what can be done to improve this.
Dr. Jayaprakash Narayan, the founding President of Lok Satta Party in an exclusive interview shares his views with Firstpost on the various structural drawbacks prevalent in the current Indian electoral systems.
Shining Path: At the outset, what are your views on the First-past-the-post [FPTP] System? Could you highlight some of its main drawbacks?
Dr. Jayaprakash Narayan: An electoral system should be judged in context. FPTP is working quite well in the US and UK. The purposes of an electoral system are: attract the most competent, committed, public spirited citizens into politics; allow the best of them to acquire power through ethical and rational means; offer the voters a clear choice in terms of agenda and leadership; obtain the people’s mandate, and once in power, set out to deliver what has been promised. These purposes are by and large well served in the UK, though the system is FPTP, and is disproportional and skewed.
In the context of India, FPTP led to dependence on marginal vote for power in a largely poor and illiterate country with woefully bad service delivery and highly centralized government. As a result, vote buying and corruption have become rampant; the kind of people who are best suited are no longer electable through ethical means, and the people who are elected are increasingly unfit to govern, or have been so compromised in their quest for power that they are incapable of delivering on their promises; easy resort to short-term freebies at the cost of real and long-term public good has become ubiquitous; polarizing society by provoking primordial loyalties of caste, religion, and region have become the staple of elections; and despite many incumbents being punished by voters for failing to deliver, there is only a periodic change of players without any significant improvement in outcomes.
FPTP also makes it excruciatingly difficult to bring in correctives like local government empowerment and strengthening rule of law, because the legislators elected in FPTP have great stakes in perpetuating status quo by controlling the police and emasculating local governments.
SP: Can the FPTP System be tweaked to overcome some of the drawbacks? Are there any examples of such tweaking from across the globe?
Dr. JPN: Some ideas like a run-off poll to ensure a majority vote for winning, partial list system combined with constituency-based FPTP election, direct election of the executive, compulsory voting and recall of elected representatives have been floated by many people.
Compulsory voting will certainly draw the urban young and middle class voters to the polls, and is welcome. Recall at local government level will improve things, but can complicate matters at state and national level by converting the legislator into the executive even more than now, and by allowing a free reign to primordial loyalties.
Direct election of the executive may help, but it can lead to legislative paralysis, and in any case is fiercely resisted by large sections in a nation of unmatched diversity and entrenched caste system. Partial list system will only marginally help, because the distortions of vote buying, freebies and polarization based on caste, religion and region will not be checked. At best, it will give parties greater flexibility to get a few leaders of their choice elected, without altering the nature of the power game. Run-off polls will only create an arithmetic majority as the two top vote getters will have to compete for a run-off poll. It does not fundamentally alter the dynamics of power.
SP: At the recently held lecture-discussion at The Hindu Centre for Politics and Public Policy, you made a case for the Proportional Representation [PR] System. Could you spell out how it addresses some of the drawbacks of the FPTP System? Also, could the “50% + 1” Preferential Voting System be a viable alternative – or does the PR System serve a completely different objective from a PV System?
Dr. JPN: In PR system, a party will get its legislators elected in proportion to the vote it gets in a whole state. There will be multi member constituencies. In each such constituency, there will be 7-10 seats, and the candidates of each party will be declared in advance in order of seniority. There will be a reasonable threshold requirement of, say 5-10% of the vote in the state, for a party to be eligible to get seats, so that small, fringe groups and caste-based parties will have no advantage.
Once electoral success is based on the share of the vote, it is no longer a winner-take-all system in each constituency. Marginal vote will not be a matter of life or death for parties / candidates. Therefore, the incentive to buy the votes and spend vast sums illegitimately disappears. A party that panders to only a caste or group to win in a constituency will find that many more voters are alienated across the state by such polarization. Parties / leaders who advocate long-term poverty reduction and economic growth, and reject short term freebies will be able to make their case and achieve electoral success without fear of being marginalized as in case of FPTP.
50% +1 voting system will artificially ensure majority mandate. When only two top vote getters are in the fray in the runoff poll, one of them will get 50% +1 vote. This is no real consensus. Nor are vote buying, and freebies culture curbed. If anything, both will be aggravated. Perhaps polarization on the basis of caste, religion and region will reduce. That is necessary. But the fatal flaws of FPTP in our conditions will not be curbed.
Preferential Voting as in Australia has many merits. In such a system, the voter is asked to give his/her preferences to all the contesting candidates. If the first preference candidate is not elected, the vote will be transferred to the second preference candidate; and if he too is not elected, then to the third candidate, and so on. This is a highly refined, but cumbersome and complicated system in a largely illiterate country where most voters cannot even read the name of the candidate, let alone make an informed choice. Therefore while AV / PV system has merits, it is not suitable for us.
SP: While arguing that the present electoral system itself needed change, you made two specific observations that appear controversial. And I quote:
1) Parties desperate to capture marginal votes have led to the conversion of fringe issues into mainstream issues. He [Dr. JPN] cited the Telangana issue in Andhra Pradesh and the faceoff between the OBC Gujjars and Meenas in Rajasthan as recent examples of that disturbing new trend in Indian politics. Is Telangana a fringe issue?
2) Since the 1980s parties have started indulging in selective populist measures and freebies. Hence the spate of freebies such as mid-day meal scheme, subsidized or free grain, and televisions and mixer-grinders, he [Dr. JPN] pointed out. Is there no distinction between welfare measures such as mid-day meal scheme and populist measures such as distribution of TV sets etc? Also, does the timing of a measure not define if it is a freebie or not?
Dr. JPN: Telangana was a fringe issue in 2000. It became a mainstream issue by the end of the decade, since major parties embraced it in pursuit of the marginal vote. The evidence in the form of votes for TRS before 2004, and its performance in alliance in 2004 and 2009 compared to its alliance partners is compelling and conclusive.
Similarly, BJP embraced ST status for Gujjars for electoral purposes, and the damage done on account of it is well-documented. There are many such local instances of provoking regional, religious or caste sentiments for gaining marginal in pursuit of power.
In a poor country, there must be social security net for the poor to give them the basic amenities for survival. But TVs, grinders, gold chains etc cannot qualify as welfare measures – they are bribes to voters. Free and quality education, skill promotion and healthcare must be government’s priorities. But if short-term consumption subsidies dominate public expenditure at the cost of education and skills, and without building infrastructure and creating jobs, then the poor are hurt more, and society stagnates. In FPTP, in a poor country, it is very difficult for a party to oppose reckless, competitive populism, even when it ensures perpetuation of poverty. All parties know that education, infrastructure and jobs creation are the keys to ending poverty. But FPTP makes it very difficult to pursue these goals. The instant unproductive freebies have great electoral appeal in a poor society in FPTP.
SP: Are there any examples from across the globe to support the hypothesis that PR could be a viable alternative to FPTP for a country like India – I would especially like to understand this in context of the electoral landscape in India wherein we already have a multitude of political parties. Moreover, how does one factor in the reality that PR may come across as too complicated a system for many voters?
Dr. JPN: Most nations of the world, except former British colonies, have PR system. Even among English speaking nations, Australia has Alternative Voting system; New Zealand has PR system; US has presidential system with FPTP model; and even in UK, regional parliaments and European Parliament are elected on PR model. London Mayor is directly elected. FPTP is a relic of colonial past in English-speaking countries.
Regarding multiple parties, FPTP did not lead to consolidation of parties in India. Since caste is deep-rooted, and one caste or the other tends to dominate in a constituency or sub-region, many parties have emerged and succeeded in elections. Therefore there is no ground to fear that PR will lead to fragmentation. In fact, with reasonable state-level threshold requirements of 5-10% vote for representation, there will be consolidation, not fragmentation. In PR with thresholds, no more than 3 or 4 parties will be viable in a major state. More important, national parties will be viable all over the country, and their foot print will increase, leading to greater cohesion and consolidation in a well-designed PR system.
PR can be very simple. All that voters need to do is vote for a party of their choice – no more, no less. Even now, most voters vote for a party. In PR, they can make informed choices based on the agenda, and list of candidates on offer by the party in a multi-member constituency. The only difference is, in PR, they can vote for the party they trust most, because they know that every vote counts in PR, and their vote is not wasted.
Now, most voters do not vote for the best candidate or party; they vote for the “second worst” party to defeat what they regard as “the worst” party. This is because “good” candidates and parties are often unelectable in FPTP.
SP: Can PR increase voter turnout and reduce “tactical voting” [whereby voters are forced to overlook their preferred candidate/party and instead cast their vote in favor of a winnable candidate/party]? How so?
Dr. JPN: PR will enable voters to vote for the best choice, not the second worst choice to prevent the “worst” in their estimate from being elected. PR will eliminate fear of “wasted” vote, and tactical voting will be unnecessary. All that the voter will look for is whether the party of her choice will reach the threshold (5 or 10% as the law may prescribe) of voting in the state. This is much lower than the constituency threshold for a party (often 40% or more) to be elected.
Evidence also shows that in PR system, voting is increased by 10-15%.This is because there is a better choice, and there is no despair as in FPTP (choice limited between tweedledum and tweedledee). This will bring more and more people into electoral process. Also the best and brightest who mostly disappeared from the electoral scene can now contest and be elected through honest means in PR.
SP: There appears to be widespread and increasing disenchantment with politics and politicians - can a move to PR also help in cleaning up the electoral landscape somewhat? Or should this malaise be addressed only through legislative and judicial action – even though recent events around the proposed RTI amendments as well as the controversy around RPA 8 do not inspire much confidence?
Dr. JPN: Certainly PR will make clean and competent candidates electable. In FPTP, such public-spirited candidates are a liability, as they are seen to be sure losers. Also dependence on criminals will be unnecessary. Now criminals bring money power, local network loyal to them, and caste power to elections – all of which give them a decisive edge. In PR, criminals will bring odium and will be seen as liabilities.
Also, in FPTP, control over police is critical to perpetuate local hegemony, so that chances of winning in the constituency are maximized. In PR, such compulsion will no longer be there, and rule of law will gain ground. Other reforms including rule of law, accountability and decentralization are necessary. But PR will be a huge step forward.
SP: What are the drawbacks of the PR System?
Dr. JPN: There are two potential risks. First is in a pure PR system without any safeguards, there can be political fragmentation. But Lok Satta is firmly supporting reasonable a threshold in each state – say 5-10% vote. This threshold will prevent fragmentation.
Second, party bosses may be reckless in nominating their cronies and may sell the seats. Even now in FPTP this is happening. In PR, ideally, there should be internal democracy and primary elections for nominating candidate. Even if that does not materialize, party bosses in PR will have to be far more democratic. Or else, credible and influential leaders can leave the party and form a viable party with like-minded persons, since they can aspire for 5-10% vote.
In FPTP, such a challenge to leaders is not possible, as a party of credible and honest leaders is not likely to win any seats even if it gets 10-15% vote.
SP: Do you think the media can play a more constructive role in terms of improving voter awareness? For instance, can some of drawbacks of FPTP be addressed by creating a more aware and responsible citizenry?
Dr. JPN: Absolutely. The only antidote to bad politics is more politics and better politics. Media has a crucial role in promoting citizenship, and encouraging constructive political engagement to make the system better. There is needless cynicism and despair today, coupled with reckless anti-political rhetoric. Media can promote reasoned public debate, and help create conditions for systemic reform
SP: Thank you for your time, Dr. JPN. On behalf of Firstpost and its readers, I wish you good luck. Any final thoughts you may want to share on this topic?
Dr. JPN: We have done well as a democracy. But in designing a system of representation, we preferred familiarity and continuity, and failed to create the conditions required to make our democracy function better. The world over, democracies had matured and improved as enlightened citizens worked hard for reform. We can easily achieve the changes we need for a better democracy.
The major parties, citizens, media – all of us have stakes in a better system of representation. We need to minimize risks and maximize gains. I am confident we will achieve the reforms needed over the next decade.
Dr. Jayaprakash Narayan [founding President, Lok Satta Party] is the MLA from Kukatpally, Hyderabad. He earlier served as a Member, National Advisory Council to Govt. of India and a Member, 2nd Administration Reforms Commission [rank of a Union Minister of State]. He also served in the IAS for 17 distinguished years in various capacities including as the Secretary to both the Chief Minister and Governor. He is a physician by training.
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