Democracy will only be strengthened by representing more groups in terms of their population and candidates who obtain more than 50% of the votes polled
The ancient English, up to the days of Anglo-Saxons, protected individual rights in a limited sense till Britain was usurped following the Norman invasion of 1066, leading subsequently to the Magna Carta signed by King John on 15.06.1215, guaranteeing political liberties of feudals and the protection and freedom of the Church. The Magna Carta was annulled and renewed intermittently till the 16th century. The developments of 1782, 1830, Reforms Act 1832, Acts of 1867, 1884, 1918 & 1928 steadily resulted in a parliamentary democracy based on adult suffrage, which is now the universal system of democratic governance, where the executive can survive till it commands the confidence of the legislature and is also accountable to it. Hereditary monarchy is ceremonial only as the real powers vest in the Prime Minister and his Cabinet.
Remember, though, that democracy as a concept envisages majority rule but without any compromise on minority rights. Therefore, in a parliamentary democracy, the rule of the majority is not at the peril of minorities. The government represents general aspirations and its policies are based on the principle of fair representation of all segments of the population. In all civilisations the focus has been on general public interest without playing one against the other. In a way this approach has been largely responsible for human progress, otherwise the monopolising of power by one or the other group would have finished Homo sapiens in their early stages of transformation from Homo erectus.
The Indian Performance
The British parliamentary system is regarded as the mother of parliaments and acts as a model for parliamentary systems across the globe. Its success is attributable to a host of factors, prominent among them being the acceptance of the necessity of compromise, apart from respect for equality, minority rights, and marked distance of the government from the Church. The Indian model was conceived by the Constituent Assembly on the lines of the British system, as a representative democracy, but the multiplicity of political parties, shifting ideologies trying to attune with electoral dividends, lack of conviction in politicians, burgeoning poverty, non-reconciliation between majority rule and minority rights, lack of tolerance for dissent and consequential lack of sense of participation by the principal minority, the Muslims, have made a mockery of it.
Muslims are estimated to constitute about 15% of the country’s population. In an accommodative polity, their strength in the Lok Sabha (LS) ought to be 82 members. In the 16th and 17th LS it was actually 23 and 27, respectively. Similarly, the position in State Assemblies is not reassuring. Muslim representation in State Assemblies of Assam, West Bengal, Kerala, UP, Bihar and Telangana is 34%, 27%, 26%, 20%, 16.9% and 13%, respectively. Another dimension of the problem is reflected in the 2019 parliamentary elections, in which the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) won 303 berths in the LS by fetching 2,29,076,879 votes and the Indian National Congress (INC) won 52 seats even after obtaining 1,19,495,214 votes. In terms of representative character, the BJP got support of 25.16% of the total electorate and 37.76% of the total votes cast. For the INC these figures were 13.12% and 19.7%, but there was a much wider mismatch between the actual seats the two parties won.
Contrary to the position spelt out above, the Hindu population in JK is to the extent of 28.44% and can further go down to 24.98% once the non-natives are excluded for the purpose of getting registered as voters, but in the Legislative Assembly out of 83 seats 25 are assured as their community pocket boroughs (30.12%) while in another 2 segments the fortune can turn in favour of either community owing to wafer-thin numerical strength over the majority community.
British & USA parallels
The 2018 demographic survey of the UK suggests that 53.6% of the total population is Christian, 30.3% Agnostic, 9.9% Atheist, 4.8% Muslim, and 1.5% Hindu, but subsequently the Jewish, Sikh, Hindu and Muslim population has been notified as comprising 1%, 1%, 1.5% and 4.8%, respectively. The strength of the House of Commons is 650 and number of candidates elected to it from the minority communities is 17 Jewish, 13 Muslims, and 8 Hindus. According to population share, this number should have been 6 to 7 for Jewish, 31 to 32 for Muslims, and 10 to 11 for Hindus, but the redeeming feature of the political parties and their sensibility towards minorities, mostly immigrants, is that the Jews have 3 times the representation otherwise due to them and Hindus 80%. Even though the Muslim presence in the House of Commons is not commensurate with their population, yet the 40% in itself is worth mentioning given their dispersal and less assimilation in local political set-ups.
In the USA, Jews account for 1.9% of the population, Muslims 0.9%, Hindus 0.7 %, and Buddhists 0.7%. There are, respectively, 34, 3, 3 and 2 members from these four communities in the House of Representatives that comprises 535 members. It is a spectacular proportion for immigrants for whom USA is neither their punya bhumi nor matri bhumi.
In India the introduction of representative democracy was instant, and not gradual as in the UK, on the basis of adult suffrage and the system of elections was based on the “first past the post” principle, i.e., amongst the contestants whosoever obtains the highest number of votes is declared elected even if the votes polled by the candidate do not cross the threshold of 50% of the votes polled in the constituency. Since then, in the entire sub-continent, the democratic institutions have not evolved with the needed infusion of democratic temper, and therefore have been lugged into hero worship. During elections, people vote for charismatic leaders, be it the elections held under the stewardship of Pandit Nehru, Indira Gandhi, and now Narendra Modi. Or, prime ministerial candidates selected by political parties have generally had to excel in the loyalty criterion towards the party leadership. In Assembly elections held in States & UTs since 2014, the majority of the candidates selected did not inspire confidence in the general electorate but the stamp of approval by Modi was the clinching factor. The same holds valid for other parties, especially regional ones.
In Pakistan, the senior leaders of Muslim League & the Pakistan Peoples Party have lined up around scions of the Sharifs and the Zardaris, even as both the dynasties are prima facie the main architects and beneficiaries of money laundering but have the gumption to mislead the public whose gullibility can be pitied only. The dynastic lifeline is also evident in the Awami League and the BNP in Bangladesh. Sri Lanka is no exception.
Dynastic continuity is also prevalent in the USA and the UK but with marked differences, as siblings and off springs of great leaders have not been imposed by their patriarchs but made their presence felt by dint of hard work and mass appeal and emerged from party primaries in stiff competitions.
In Indi, the hollow sloganeering for inclusive participation in nation building is borne out by data about the meagre presence of Muslims in Parliament and State Assemblies. While celebrating the success of Kamla Harris in USA and people of Indian origin making their way into the Congress & House of Commons or the European Parliament, the emulation of the same back home is consigned to the flames. It clearly seems to be the broad mindedness of white-skinned voters and the political parties supported by them that something unbelievable in the sub-continent is happening on these foreign turfs. In the UP Assembly elections, the biggest achievement claimed by the ruling dispensation was about not fielding a single candidate from the Muslim community. The frequent hate speeches need no mention as that would amount to spraying salts on wounds inflicted by hate speeches, which neither drew admonitions from the party leadership nor by the institutions mandated to enforce rule of law.
The number of votes secured and the number of candidates elected between the BJP & INC in the 2019 elections points to how the distribution of seats is not reflecting the real sub-text of elections, and hence a paradigm shift in the model of electoral system is necessary now.
The American and British treatment of Asian and African settlers in their respective polities should stir the conscience of political power wielders in India. Demography must be taken into consideration while selecting candidates in elections, especially as the minority communities here have same origin as the majority community. Muslims and Christians are no less Indians than Hindus. Giving proportionate share in power to the minorities can lead to establishing of healthy conventions/ precedents that empower hitherto disempowered sections on the margins of the electoral process. This type of arrangement shall neither necessitate amendments in laws nor infringe in any way on the secular features of the Constitution.
The seat share of the BJP and INC in the current Lok Sabha should have been 2/3rd and 1/3rd, respectively, according to their share of votes in the 2019 general election, but the electoral system in vogue pushed the INC to the wall sans any regard for the 1,19,495,214 votes secured by it, which pari-passu holds good in respect of other parties, too. An analogous position forced some western nations to part with the “first past the post system” and replace it with the proportional representation (PR) system, which allocates the seats in proportion to the number of votes secured by the political parties. Thomas Jefferson initially introduced the system of PR in the USA in 1792 and Belgian mathematician Victor D’Hondt detailed the methodology in 1878. Countries like Sri-Lanka, Turkey, Venezuela, Switzerland, Spain, Romania, Finland, Argentina, Austria, Belgium, Japan, Israel, and Nepal in 2008 and Indonesia in 2019 have adopted D’Hondt’s method. Germany with a different method called “Webster/ Saint League” has produced the smallest standard deviations in European Parliament elections as against D’Hondt’s method, which supposedly favours large parties and coalitions while in the former the middle-sized parties are the beneficiaries at the expense of large and small parties.
These alternative models available for proportional representation have merits as well as demerits, but so is the case with the systems prevalent in representative democracies. There is need for a debate on the advisability of perpetuating faulty models without addressing the faults. Democracy will only be strengthened by representing more groups in terms of their population and candidates who obtain more than 50% of the votes polled. Simultaneously, the seats must be proportionally apportioned among the participating parties on the basis of State/ UT as a unit for the central legislative body and as natural geographical regions for the federating units.
A debate on reforms both in respect of minimising the number of political parties or realignment of the burgeoning existing political parties under three axis described elsewhere in this write-up, along with introduction of proportional representation by adopting one or the other method or a combination of them, is long due for realising the objectives set out in the idea and practice of democracy.
The writer is IAS (retd) and former Chairman of Jammu and Kashmir Public Service Commission. [email protected]