Breaking the majority's tyranny - II
The Hindu, August 29
By Gail Omvedt

IN ATTEMPTING to protect Dalits from the tyranny of the majority in politics, Dr. Ambedkar first took a cue from the example of Muslims in India and looked to separate electorates, in which only members of the specified minority would vote. When he first put forward this demand before the Round Table conference in 1930, he was quite clear in his condemnation of what we describe today as a First-Past-the- Post system. In a draft written at that time, he noted that ``A joint electorate for a small minority and a vast majority is bound to result in a disaster to the minority. A candidate put up by the minority cannot be successful even if the whole of the minority were solidly behind him... Even if a seat is reserved for a minority, a majority can always pick up a person belonging to the minority and... get him elected... The result is that the representative of the minority elected to the reserved seat instead of being a champion of the minority is really a slave of the majority'' (Dr. Ambedkar Writings and Speeches, Vol. 5, page 347).

This echoes the main criticism given throughout the world of FPTP electoral systems. What Ambedkar was claiming in the early 1930s is precisely what the proponents of proportional representation (PR) such as Dr. Satinath Choudhary are saying today: that under reservation with a territorial electoral where only one representative is chosen, the winner of the reserved seat will remain subordinate to the dominant group of the constituency. Women will remain slaves of men, Dalits will remain slaves of caste Hindus and so on.

Significantly enough, Ambedkar went even further at that time to point out that a multi-seat constituency which is large enough would actually provide protection to the majority: ``In a joint electorate the safety of the minority lies in the majority having a larger number of seats to contest. Otherwise it is sure to be overwhelmed by the majority'' (p. 348). Thus, he argued at the time of the Poona Pact and later that instead of single-member constituencies, there should be plural-member constituencies, and suggested constituencies of 3-4 representatives. But plural- member constituencies - though usually with much larger numbers of representatives elected from each constituency (five to ten representatives elected from each constituency is normal) - are precisely the basis of systems of proportional representation. It is within these, within the party list system, that voters give their votes to the party of the choice and the parties are given overall representation according to the percentage of total votes received. This allows minority interests to be represented, particularly if they are conscious and organised. It is interesting that Ambedkar realised this in the 1930s, though he did not know of the existence and functioning of proportional representation or use such terminology.

Due to the moral blackmail exerted by Gandhi's epic facts, in 1932 Ambedkar signed the Poona Pact agreeing to accept reservation for Untouchables within a system of general joint constituencies. (These at first were two-member constituencies but later even that was dropped and single-member constituencies became the norm). He never was reconciled to this, however, and fought for separate electorates through the Scheduled Caste Federation as late as the 1940s, arguing bitterly that experience had showed the failure of what we are calling the FPTP system to provide any real representation for Dalits. The title of his 1945 book, ``What Congress and Gandhi Have Done to the Untouchables'', speaks for itself.

Nevertheless, by the time of Independence and the drafting of the Constitution, separate electorates were thoroughly discredited, and reservation within single-member constituencies was the only option considered. The discrediting of separate electorates is not surprising, but the failure to consider any other alternative electoral system is remarkable. While Ambedkar himself was heavily engrossed in Dalit affairs and his other domestic duties, there were those in the country with more time for study, more experience of travel abroad (including European countries). But even they appeared to be totally oblivious to the existence of any system of electoral democracy outside that of the U.K. and, possibly, the U.S. The dominance of Anglo-American models of democracy was almost absolute at the time of the drafting of the Constitution itself and continues even today.

This is perhaps not so surprising. India has adopted many of its institutions from the British, usually with less change over the decades than in Britain itself. This has happened with the judicial system (with its massive powers and status given to judges) and the educational system (where the system of affiliating universities, discontinued in Britain in the last century, remains here to stifle college and university development). And so with the parliamentary system. Basic change does not seem to be considered, and if it is talked about - as with the Constitutional Review Commission set up by the BJP Government - it is of the wrong kind, enough to frighten any progressives or minorities. Dalits have very understandably agitated against the very idea of a review, using as their banner the emotional cry that ``Ambedkar's Constitution'' must not be touched.

However, emotion can be misleading. On the issue of electoral systems, PR versus FPTP, some rethinking is necessary. It is not accidental that in the U.S. African-Americans are the leading force for a change to a PR system. Its most prominent spokesperson is the African- American voters' rights champion, Ms. Lani Guinier, and it was another African-American woman, Ms. Cynthia McKinley, who introduced bills for a change in the direction of PR in the U.S. Congress in 1995 and 1997. Even African-American conservatives such as the Chief Justice, Mr. Clarence Thomas, have spoken up in favour of such a system. It is also not accidental that South Africa, newly emerging from apartheid, should adopt under the leadership of Nelson Mandela a PR system as a way of assuring that all minorities (in this case whites) will get enough representation and not be overwhelmed by a vindictive majority. PR systems aid in the true political representation of social minorities.

The situation of women's political representation should make this even clearer. The proponents have not really looked at the world-wide data. Women have high political representation in PR systems, and not because of any type of reservation of seats or legal requirements for parties to sponsor women candidates. Women represent 25-40 per cent of the legislatures in the European countries with PR systems - and these are true representatives, not the male-dominated ones that the Women's Bill would give us. Sweden, with 34 per cent women MPs in 1994 (more now), has no reserved seats and no legal requirements for party reservation, but does have PR. In contrast, in the U.S., Britain and Canada, which are the leading industrialised countries with the old, outmoded electoral FPTP systems, women were only 10 per cent, 7 per cent and 17 per cent of parliamentary representatives in 1994 (Human Development Report, 1995, Annex Table A2.4). This is about as bad as India. The PR electoral systems empower not only social minorities. They also help to empower political minorities, or minorities of opinion and so are supported in the U.S. by minority parties as diverse as the Greens and the Libertarian party.

It is striking that with all the discussion of democratic struggles and expanding democracy in India, almost no one has thought of debating the mechanisms of democratic representation. Perhaps this is because progressives, so much influenced by marxism, have tended to think that there is little worthwhile in ``bourgeois democracy'' and that the expansion of democratic rights has to move in other directions. Yet mechanisms of representation are important. To discuss proportional representation today is to discuss what may seem to be a radical Constitutional change, but one very much in the spirit of Ambedkar, who was concerned throughout his life about defeating the tyranny of the majority.

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