Empowering social minorities

The Hindu
18th July 2000

IN THE most recent debate on the Women's Bill, Ms. Madhu Kishwar (TheHindu, May 31) appeared extremely upset that Ms. Gail Omvedt credited Mr. Mulayam Singh Yadav with suggesting the ``required'' reservation of a third of nominations to women in all parties. It seemed as though she felt she was the first to have struck a hoard of gold and that the treasure was being snatched away from her and given to Mr. Yadav. But while Mr. Yadav was the first to suggest this method, even this new scheme gives only false representation to women, just as Dalits today have only false representation.

There are two basic kinds of electoral systems. The first is the plurality system, often called the ``first-past-the-post'' (FPTP) system, in which the candidate gaining the highest number of votes in a demarcated constituency is declared the winner. This is currently used in France, the United Kingdom, and most of their former colonies, including India, the U.S., Canada, Australia, etc. As an electoral system it discriminates against smaller parties, and has been rejected in favour of the proportional representation (PR) system by more than two-thirds of the democratic countries of the world, including all European countries except for the U.K. and France. In almost all other countries including the U.K. there are movements in favour of some version of the PR system.

Yet India continues to have the FPTP system. Even when it became clear to the Indian leaders that the lowest castes (Dalit, SC/ST, etc.) would not stand much of a chance to get elected, they tried to compensate for this by giving them reservations within the existing framework. So today elections are held in reserved constituencies in which all citizens vote as they normally would except that the candidates can be only from the reserved group (SC/ST). The reservation for women now being considered, whether in the form of the Women's Bill now before Parliament or the alternative proposed by Mr. Mulayam Singh Yadav and Ms. Madhu Kishwar, remains within this framework.

Creates an illusion

In the FPTP system, the voters belonging to the biggest group in each constituency have the say in which a candidate of the social minority (whether SC, women or whatever) gets elected. In this process, just putting different faces in Parliament, whether of Dalits or women or any others, is not going to make any difference. All it does is that it creates an illusion of ``representation'' of the social minorities who actually continue to be disenfranchised. In the absence of these deceptions, the rulers would have been forced to take concrete real steps to allow voice to the voiceless. Instead, through false representation whatever feeble voice the voiceless groups have is co-opted and gagged and the social minority remains subject to a politically powerful minority.

The falseness of this representation is shown by the results of the parliamentary election in 1996. The BJP won 36 per cent of the seats overall, and 40 per cent of the seats reserved for SC, while only 10 per cent of the voters among the SC community were found to support the BJP.

As long as the overall framework continues to be FPTP, any kind of artificial means of changing the gender or caste representation is deceptive. These superfluous and insidious changes only further postpone a serious consideration of the fairer and more appropriate form of election systems - the PR system.

How it works

The oldest and most basic form of a PR electoral system is the ``closed list PR'' system. It is simple; rather than voting in a single-member constituency for a specific candidate, electors vote for a party in a multi-member constituency, or sometimes a whole country. Parties get a quota (upper limit) of seats in a legislative body in proportion to the votes they receive.

In the closed system, parties (which essentially mean party bosses) publish a list of their candidates in descending priority. Candidates from the top of a party's list are declared elected until their upper limit is reached. Since voters do not have input in the creation of the party list and priority given to the candidates, this system is not very democratic.

In the open list PR, the public vote for candidates that will create a (descending order) list. Votes for the candidates of each party can be added to obtain respective party votes. Party votes determine the quota (upper limits) of seats that each party would be entitled to. This takes nomination power from the political bosses and placed squarely in the hands of the people via primaries. Nominating power entrenched in the hands of political bosses is the main source of sycophancy, nepotism, mediocrity, favouritism and casteism prevalent in India.

To guarantee 33 per cent of seats to women, we will have to work with an upper limit of 67 per cent for male members as outlined below, and a single master list of all candidates (in descending order of votes obtained by them). If we wanted fixed quotas of 15 per cent and 10 per cent seats for SC and ST members respectively, upper limits of 15 per cent, 10 per cent and 75 per cent for SC, ST and non-SC/ST members respectively would do. By using conditional upper limits on the number of SC and ST members it is possible to ensure that at least 15 per cent and 10 per cent of the seats are guaranteed for SC and ST members, while their number could theoretically go over the said percentages, in consonance with current provisions (current provision is that SC/ST candidates can contest from general seats while non-SC/ST candidates cannot contest in the constituencies reserved for the SC/ST). However, in order to keep this presentation simple we will forgo finer details of conditional upper limits.

Candidates will be picked off the top of the above mentioned master list and given seats. As various upper limits for various groups or parties are reached, the rest of the members belonging to those groups will be dropped off the master list. Suppose first party A's upper limit has been reached. At that point the rest of party A members will be dropped off the master list. When the male upper limit is reached, all male candidates' names would be eliminated from the master list. At that point the candidates left on the master list would be all females, belonging to parties other than party A. And so on until all seats are filled.

Under the free for all method described above (with everybody free to contest election under affiliation of a party of their choice) the number of candidates is going to be very large, too large to put them on a meaningful ballot paper. We would therefore let the voters bring the name or a flier of their favourite candidate(s) from home. They can stuff it into an empty envelop provided to them at the polling booth, seal it and deposit the same in a ballot box.

The above process may be repeated as a runoff election with a reduced number of candidates. In the first election one could elect, say, twice as many candidates as there are seats in the legislative body concerned. In the runoff, the reduced number of candidates can all be provided with the government assistance for equal amenities (fliers, jeeps, public speaking systems, space and time in the media, etc.) to enable the public to get to know their final choices as well as they can before the final voting. Even without this runoff provision, the scheme outlined here is far superior to our current system of election.


The proportional representation electoral system has innumerable advantages as compared to the plurality system currently used in India and many other countries of the world.

The PR would facilitate the election of genuinely liberated women. Under the FPTP system the conservative men and their female partners who would tend to dominate most constituencies would, in all likelihood, elect a conservative woman candidate, or at least one who would fear antagonising the conservative voters on whom they have to depend. In a PR system, male chauvinistic men and women under their strong influence would probably not vote for women candidates at all. The only votes that women candidates will get will be those of progressive voters (men as well as women) who will vote for progressive women. Even if the total number of such liberated type of voters turns out to be smaller than 33 per cent, yet because of one third quota of seats allocated to them, progressive women would capture a third of the seats in all Lower Houses.

Generally, the PR system allows for a genuine as well as proportional representation of all segments of society, down to the caste levels (or by political ideology, if that is the main factor in voting). All minorities will find a fair and genuine representation under it.


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