Saturday, February 21, 2009

Lok Sabha and Demographic Shift


From 1951 to 1971 the number of seats in the Lok Sabha was updated each time to reflect the growth in population.  However, since 1971  the number of seats in the Lok Sabha has been fixed at 542.   In 1971 India's population was 547 million, today it  is 1.1  billion. In addition, the number of seats in each state has also remained fixed since 1971.


Due to variations in population growth in the different states in India over the past 40 years we have "significant" imbalances in  the  number of seats each state has in the Lok Sabha.   For example,  according to their current share of the population, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh,  Rajasthan and Uttar  Pradesh  (the so  called  BIMARU  states) should be allocated  193  seats  in  the  Lok  Sabha.  However, they only have a combined 175 seats, an under representation of 18 seats.  On the other hand, the southern states,  Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh should have  117 seats  based on their population share but  they actually have 129 seats, an over representation of  12  seats. 


In  addition, small  states have always  been  over represented  in  the  Lok Sabha. The  states and union territories with a population under  3 million should have a combined representation of 8 seats in the Lok Sabha but they actually have 19 seats. Laskhadweep, our smallest  Lok Sabha constituency has a population of only  60,000 people compared  to  the  nationwide average of about  2,000,000  people.  That  is  over representation by  a  factor of  40.


This imbalance can actually determine who comes  to  power  especially  in  a  coalition  scenario.   In  2004  the UPA and Left  Parties  gained an estimated  25  seat  swing  over  the  other parties  due  to  this  imbalance  because  they  did  well  in  the  over represented  regions  and  poorly  in the under  represented regions.  This played a crucial role in the UPA's ability to form the government.


This imbalance is not fair if we are committed to universal adult franchise.  It is the duty of the Election Commission to update the number  the seats in each state at least after each new census. 



P.S.  The case may be made that we are rewarding those states which have made the least progress checking the growth of their population.









Monday, February 16, 2009

A Political Junkie's "Excellent" Journey


Editorial Note:


This posting is more personal than usual,  I hope my daughter will get know something about her father when she is old enough to read this. I apologize if this is not of general interest.



The story begins in February 1977,  I had just turned nine (My daughter turns nine this year). India was in the grips of the Emergency, and Indira Gandhi had just declared elections. Our family was a staunch Congress household  and the Emergency had been explained to me as Indira Gandhi has put all the bad people in jail. Of course,  my father had no doubt that the Congress would be swept back to power. This sense of absolute certainty was passed on to me.  So when a friend of mine insisted that the Janata Party would win this time and offered a bet of an "orange bar" I felt that it was like taking candy from a baby though I had no idea how I would pay up if I lost.


On the day the results were to be announced,  I was  still  hopeful  as I listened to All India Radio continuously reporting about how the Congress had won 41 out of the 42 seats in the Andhra Pradesh  and silent about the results in the rest of the country.  By the next morning the papers were full  of the Janata Party riding a wave back to power and I had  sinking  feeling as I wondered how I would get 55 paise.  I dared not tell me father about  the bet.  It took me two weeks of scrounging around for spare (aka unguarded) change,  but I re-payed my debt using 11 five paise coins.  This traumatic experience led me to make a solemn promise to myself:  I will never blindly believe what someone tells me about a election,  I will always come to my own conclusions based on the data.  That month, a political "junkie" was born.


To be continued ...



Sunday, February 8, 2009

The Case for Separate Electorates



While Mahatma Gandhi is the father of the nation, and the nation was shaped and nurtured in its infancy by Nehruvian principles it can be argued that B.R. Ambedkar was more prescient about the real nature of India. There are number of issues where he disagreed with Gandhi and history shown that his position might have been closer to the truth.  Ambedkar had written in 1946 about the practical dangers of  a two-state  solution with the issues  related of massive transfers of population (partition horrors) and unending border disputes (Kashmir).  Ambedkar also sharply disagreed with Gandhi on the "romantic" nature of village life in India and correctly suggested that the best way to escape your caste identity was to migrate to the cities. Today is it clear that the best way to escape both the caste system and grinding poverty is to migrate to the cities.


In 1931 Ambedkar proposed separate electorates for Dalits  i.e. there would be separate seats in the provincial assemblies whose electorate would consist exclusively of the  "oppressed classes". Gandhi was vehemently opposed to this proposal on the grounds that it would divide the Hindu community for the future generations and went on indefinite fast to protest it. Ambedkar relented under the pressure and the result was a compromise known as Poona Pact, whereby certain seats were "reserved" i.e. the candidates would be Dalit, but the electorate includes the entire population. This agreement got codified in our constitution in the form reservation of SC/ST seats in Lok/Vidhan Sabha elections. However, other than this concession we adopted a "Westminster" style winner take all parliamentary system.


The impact of our current parliamentary system was not very clear as long as the Congress Party dominated the electoral scene in the first 30 years after independence. However, as we move to increasingly multi-polar contests we are faced with a situation where all parties practise vote bank politics.  These vote bank politics exist because various communities,  especially those who fear disenfranchisement and marginalization,  will vote as blocs to retain some sort of influence in the political process.  Political parties try to exploit this fact to win power by either supporting or opposing specific caste or religion based vote-banks.  In fact,  a cleverly cobbled together coalition of vote banks totalling 30-35% can result in a party or front  achieving an  absolute majority. 


Vote bank politics can result in both under and over representation of certain sections of society in elections. For example, in the latest Vidhan Sabha elections in Gujarat, where the Congress attempted  unsuccessfully combat Modi with soft Hindutva there are zero Muslim MLAs even though 7% of the electorate in Muslim. On the other extreme in the 2007 UP Vidhan Sabha elections, Brahmins,  who consist of about 8% of  the electorate in UP, comprised over 13% of the elected MLAs.  They managed this astounding result because of clever aggregation of vote banks by the BSP and the multi polar nature of the contest.  Interestingly,  thanks to the Poona Pact, the SC/ST are guaranteed a 22.5% representation in the legislature.


Why do we have vote bank politics ? Was Ambedkar right  that  India is  really a nation that contains many "communities" within the same borders,  having different needs and aspirations ? Should every "community" be guaranteed fair representation in the legislature based on separate electorates ?


A "community" would be allocated a certain percentage of seats based on their population.  Electorates for these seats would consist exclusively of people  belonging to that community.  This would reduce vote bank politics as each community would not have vote as a "bloc" for fear of disenfranchisement.  Each community would have its fair representation in the legislature guaranteed and there would be fewer accusations of real and imagined bias  (aka appeasement) towards any particular community.


In addition, it will raise the standard of debate within each community where there would be competition between different visions for that particular community.   For e.g. if there were a separate electorate for forward castes surely there would be parties which opposed reservation that would have representation in the legislature.  It is also possible that such an approach could also give rise to debate and moderate voices in the Muslim community.  The  list could go on and on.


The argument against such an approach is that it would codify the divisions in society for generations  to come.   However, if these divisions already exist then it may be better to move forward after acknowledging them.