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.