Last week has been extraordinarily eventful on the political from even by the contemporary Indian standards. We have witnessed some astounding developments which are bound to have repercussions in the days to come when the Lok Sabha reconvenes.
It is therefore very astounding that a very meaningful and constructive suggestion that was propounded by none other than the former Chief Election Commissioner T.S.Krishnamurthy has been almost completely ignored by almost all the sections of the Fourth Estate ; and not given the importance it truly merited by the political formations.
Mr.Krishnamurthy ,in a very erudite lecture , elaborated the pitfalls of the first-past –the-post system that we have adopted from the British and how it was playing havoc not just in the political arena but also impeding the country’s progress. According to him, this system encourages the formation of cliques which present as vote banks. As someone with very intimate knowledge of the Indian elections, he speaks with some authority when he states that many a time , a candidate can be successful by just managing to procure less than 15 % of the total votes. He then questions whether the successful candidate can be truly considered as a legitimate representative of the constituency at large.
Pondering over the former CEC’s exhortations ,I managed to recall some remarkable correspondence at the time of the framing of the Indian Constitution . Eamonn De Valera was an Irish statesman who was a pivotal figure in the struggle for Irish independence and later on in the framing of the Irish Constitution. He had built up a strong relationship with the leaders of the Indian freedom movement like Nehru , Bose and Dr.Rajendra Prasad. They exchanged several letters on their respective visions of what paths their newly independent countries should take.
When following the Indian independence ,the Constituent Assembly was elected, De Valera was always too willing to share his experiences with his Indian contemporaries. It is no coincidence that the Indian Constitution resembles the Irish Constitution more than any other in the world. The Directive Principles in both the Constitutions are almost identical. Plus it was De Valera who had suggested that the Chief Law Officer viz the Attorney General , should not be an active politician ( as in the UK,US, Australia and a number of other countries) but a lawyer governed by the civil service rules.
De Valera had made another notable suggestion in his letter to Dr.Rajendra Prasad dated 8th May 1949. He had indicated that adopting the first past the post system would not suit the Indian democratic aspirations as the society was not as homogenous as in the United Kingdom. He had pointed out that even his country had not accepted the first past the post system and adopted a multiple choice method of serial preferences which come into operation when no candidate procures more that 50 % on the first count. This particular suggestion did not find favour with many British trained legal luminaries who were part of the deliberation process.
Mr.Krishnamurthy’s comments have to be seen in this context. Clearly if we have a successful candidate who enjoys the confidence of less than a sixth of the total electorate, there is a serious problem. The British system works because it has evolved over time and it is generally accepted that once a candidate is successful, he/she is expected to represent the entire constituency irrespective of the voting which is secret in any case. I do not think even the most ardent followers of the first past the post system in India would claim that this happens in India.This of course is partly because India has a very diverse population with some very differing aspirations.
Democracy is not a static but an evolutionary concept. If after deliberations, it is felt that there is a better system of ensuring public representation, we should not hesitate to adopt it even if it means a Constitutional amendment. We have already noticed a fundamental change in our electoral machinery i.e. the provision of None Of The Above. Therefore Mr.Krishnamurthy’s suggestion at least merits a comprehensive debate.
There also have been some suggestions about making provisions for a negative vote which I think would only make the electoral process messy.I personally believe that the proportional representation system would not work in India as it would not bind the representative to the constituency which is needed. But Mr. Krishnamurthy’s suggested remedy i.e, mandating a minimum of 30% of the total electoral votes for the winner may just about work.
I also believe that even the Irish system might work in India although many of my fellow citizens are sceptical about its applicability in this country. But let us at least recognize that the system we have adopted has been failing us for the last few decades as the egregious vote bank politics has taken root.
The most important question that we have to ask ourselves is whether it is truly in democratic spirit to have a representative who by all reckoning enjoys the support of just 15% of his electorate particularly so when we are not in a position to reassure ourselves that the remainder i.e. the 85% also extend their support despite not voting for this candidate.
Electoral reform is not something many politicians would relish particularly if they have a vested stake in preservation of status quo. But in the larger interest of the country, the time has come for us to have a serious debate.
By Ashoka Jahnavi Prasad