Monday, December 17, 2012

Modi’s emphatic win in Gujarat shows why we need electoral reforms….

Modi’s likely emphatic victory in Gujarat is good news for Gujarat, though it may not be good news for the liberals in the country. In a democracy, a clear victory empowers the winning party to act as per its electoral promise, without compromises necessitated by coalition compulsions. On the other hand, a split mandate – as in the Center for the last two decades and now likely in HP as well – compels the winning party to follow a “common minimum agenda” kind of doctrine which is neither here nor there. In the end, the ruling combination picks up a bad name which harms it’s future prospects. A clear loser is in fact better off than a winner without a clear majority. Our electoral system needs a reform – so that it ensures a clear majority to whoever wins.

The Chairman of the Rajya Sabha – and the Vice President of India – Hamid Ansari has made a similar statement yesterday, saying that “after six decades, we have failed to make our electoral democracy fully representative”, suggesting that the first past the post system is not working adequately and that we need reforms quickly.

There are some good examples of how electoral majorities are ensured around the world. The Greek electoral system is interesting. It follows something called “reinforced proportionality” – which basically means that in addition to whatever the winning party or coalition wins, it is allotted 50 more seats in Parliament (in a total strength of just 300, that’s nearly 17% more seats). This ensures that the winning combination gets a clear majority, and a chance to run the country by its will. Those parties that secure less than 3% of the votes are denied any seats. This eliminates the scourge of small parties that exert a disproportionate amount of the power by being willing to “sell” themselves to whoever pays them the most (we will soon see this happening in HP). Even if the country’s economy may have failed, Greece’s electoral system surely hasn’t!

It’s the same in Italy, where the winning coalition is given enough “majority prize” seats so that it reaches a 54% majority. Again the idea is the same – the winner must be given a fair chance to show what it really stands for.

The US is another example from which we can learn a few tricks. Essentially, by ensuring that “the winner takes all” in a state, small claimants are eliminated. In the end, the one that takes the majority of seats nationally is the winner. The point here is that the system ensures that the winning party wins a majority, no less.

In the UK in contrast, the problems are similar to what we face in India, though much more infrequently. Essentially, there aren’t so many regional parties and hence the top three parties fight it out amongst themselves. But just consider the results of the last elections held in 2010. For the 2nd time in its history (and only the 2nd time), the election system in the UK returned a hung Parliament, forcing the winners (Conservatives) to tie-up with the 3rd placed (Lib Dems). The tensions in the coalition are already visible and there is constant speculation that the two may part ways, leading to political instability. More importantly, there have been so many compromises forced on the winner (who was just 20 short of a majority on its own) that the government hardly represents what the winning party really stands for. In relative terms, the loser (Labour) is better placed and in a position to take jabs at the coalition for the inadvertent conflict that exists between them.

In India on the other hand, we have not had a single-party rule since 1984 when Rajiv Gandhi won a landslide. Not surprising then that we have had enormous political instability since then. The 9th and the 11th Lok Sabhas lasted just about 2 years and the 12th fared even worse lasting less than a single year. In this period of extreme instability, India saw several PMs being made, none of whom could help the fate of the country – VP Singh, Chandrashekhar, Deve Gowda and Gujral. Even when the Lok Sabhas lasted their full term, the PMs were hobbled by coalition politics. Vajpayee – the only moderate face of the BJP – was the most successful in becoming PM three times, though two of those were extremely short tenures. Even when Vajpayee got a full term, his attention must surely have been diverted more towards managing coalitions rather than managing the country. Its been no different for Manmohan Singh’s government since 2004. The Center has been truly held hostage to coalition politics for long.

When it comes to states, the relationship between a clear majority and a clear performance (good or bad) is clear. States like Gujarat, MP, Bihar, Andhra, Haryana, Delhi and TN which have seen clear mandates being given have benefitted from relatively better rule. Equally, poor rulers like Mamata in WB and Yeddy/BJP in Karnataka have been completely exposed and are unable to hide behind excuses. Either way, the people get a chance to see what is happening.

So Modi’s victory is indeed good for Gujarat. A clear mandate will ensure good governance. I also believe that it is very good for the Congress, because Modi moving on to become the PM candidate of the BJP will lead to the polarization that Modi’s presence always leads to. That can only help the Congress. The Congress will also benefit because of the division Modi will cause within his own party. But more on this in a different post!

The real truth is that the first past the post system currently in use in India certainly needs an overhaul. Either we have to look at some sort of a “bonus seats” system so that winners get clear majorities; or we give governments “fixed tenures” so that coalition partners cannot issue constant threats all the time. 

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