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Thu. February 09, 2023
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India’s Fragmented Mandate – Need for Electoral Reforms
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By Anuradha Kataria India, the world’s most populous democracy is headed for elections in 2014. Conducting elections in such a large and populous country is no mean task. However, over the years the Election Commission of India, in tandem with the government and the judiciary, has undertaken a lot of reforms. As a result, the elections are largely free and fair and devoid of any pre or post violence so characteristic of most other developing world democracies. That is a commendable achievement indeed. However, while the election process itself has been streamlined, there are a lot of structural issues that need consideration. India is a large, populous and diverse nation with over 28 states and Union territories. For historic reasons, each of them has retained its distinct culture, cuisine, language, customs and ethnic identity. Even politics is fragmented along these lines. Most states have their own parties which are aligned with their specific interests and have little presence outside their respective fiefdoms. Regional one state parties are thus a common affair. At the state level, this serves them well enough as they genuinely represent people’s aspirations. But the problem arises in elections to the national assembly, or the Lok Sabha which remains an amalgamation of its 28 – 29 divergent states than a truly national mandate. While there are only two main parties with a pan national presence, the BJP and the Congress, the votes get fragmented among a motley bunch of regional parties. By winning just a paltry number of seats, all sorts of one state local parties gain representation into the parliament. As a result, coalition governments with large number of partners are the norm having little in common, they tend to pull the government in different directions. For instance, in the last election, 38 parties won representation in the parliament with several of them winning just one seat to the 533 member house. The coalition soup that makes up the government normally has between 10 to 15 parties and through the term, several of them drop out over petty differences and new ones are brought or bought in to keep the soup fluid. In this sort of a coalition, the minority regional parties play kingmakers and hijack the popular majority mandate as well as stymie the national agenda. This constantly bickering, compromising house barely functions where the main party is kept busy doing a balancing act and compromising on nearly all issues to please one or the other minority members. India already has a federal structure where the states enjoy their desired level of autonomy. So there is no need to duplicate their powers at the center level also. India does have a winner takes all approach as opposed to a proportional representation method of counting at the constituency level. So, that is not the main issue here. The key problem is the highly diverse and regional nature of its politics with a huge proliferation of state dominant parties. As these also gain unfettered entry into the national assembly, the national agenda is lost as this centrifugal house is brought together by arithmetic convenience rather than any kind of ideological synch barely functions at all. Decision making is reduced to a fracas and the national Executive diluted greatly. What is the way forward for India? The Election commission of India did try to make some reforms aimed at differentiating between state and national parties but those remain so marginal and cosmetic that virtually any party with large presence in a state can qualify for that. What India needs is representation of only pan national parties in the national parliament. There ought to be a cut off percentage of a minimum 5% of the national votes for a party to qualify gaining any representation in the house. This would ensure that only 5 – 6 parties will make the cut and the state dominant parties will limit themselves to their respective fiefdoms only. Alternately, if they have national ambitions, they will have to try enhancing their agenda to represent aspirations of the nation rather than their own state only. To be sure, India will not be the first country to try such a reform. A somewhat similar system already exists in several West European parliaments. Germany particularly had a poor experience in the unstable Weimar republic that led to the rise of extremist parties including Hitler’s. In their post World War II Basic Law, such a cut off was instituted to avoid fragmentation and bring in a stronger and more stable executive. As a result only 4- 5 parties with at least somewhat pan national presence gain representation in the parliament and the coalition government is usually a lead party with just one partner. It also has another clause that would benefit India and perhaps most parliamentary democracies, that of a positive vote of confidence. It is not enough to ask a negative vote of confidence to dissolve a parliament an alternative party must prove a majority to bring down a government. The coalitions thus tend to last full terms and the minority partners are denied excessive blackmailing of the lead party due to the positive vote of confidence clause. All this helps Germany have a powerful executive and political stability, a core factor in its strength in an increasingly competitive world. With a bludgeoning population and a divergent polity, India also needs to streamline and strengthen its political system to give its fragile democracy some teeth. Its national government ought to have a national character. Such electoral reforms are the need of the hour to prevent another weak fragmented coalition at the center where all partners pull it in different directions. India needs a strong executive to face the myriad challenges it faces internally and externally and the Election Commission should not shy away from undertaking such reforms even though they will obviously be unpopular with the one state and two state kind of highly localized parties. Anuradha Kataria is author of the book Democracy on Trial, All Rise! and has also published several editorials on the developing world issues. She lives in Delhi NCR, India. Anukat3@gmail.com www.anukataria.blogspot.com

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