Breaking the majority's tyranny

By Gail Omvedt

THE RECENT intervention by Dr. Satinath Choudhary in the Women's Bill debate (see ``Empowering Social Minorities,'' The Hindu, July 18, 2000) may prove a milestone not only for that debate but even in the ongoing discussion on review of the Constitution. Strikingly, while the Constitution Review Commission set up by the BJP-led Government seems to be wasting its time on such things as a proposed study of ``the impact of globalisation on poverty'' (it has not made it clear what this worthwhile project has to do with Constitution review), Dr. Choudhary, a Dalit himself, has struck at the heart of the matter of representation and empowerment.

His argument is simple. No reservation of any kind, for women or for Dalits, whether by reservation of constituencies or by requiring political parties to allot a proportion of their tickets, will do any good as long as it is linked to the current form of electoral system. What is this current system? It is one in which there are territorial (geographically-based) constituencies which send only one representative, the winner of the largest number of votes, to Parliament. This is most commonly known as a first-past-the-post or FPTP system; others have called it a winner-take-all form of electoral system. It is a form of election which is so taken for granted by Indians as well as Americans that they practically never realise that there is any other way. But, as Dr. Choudhary reminds us, a very different electoral system is prevalent in most of the democratic countries of the world and represents the direction in which others are moving. This is the proportional representation or PR system.

The main fault of an FPTP system of single-member territorial constituencies is that minorities are systematically under- represented. For social minorities which are geographically concentrated, as some ethnic groups are, this may not be so serious. But for those minorities which are spread throughout a country, as Dalits are in India and as African- Americans are in the U.S. (to take the two most obvious examples), the result can be devastating. They will not achieve real representation simply because the majority (or sizeable plurality) of white or caste- Hindu voters can, with a plurality of votes in the constituency, determine who gets elected. Minorities can be shut out in every constituency and so get almost no representation in Parliament.

Muslims in India, for example, have less than half of their proportion of the population as MPs. In the U.S. today, African- Americans, with 12 per cent of the population, have only 7 per cent of the seats in the Congress, while Latinos, who are 10 per cent of the population, have only 3 per cent. And even this is the highest proportion they have achieved in the history of the country, and has been made possible only due to gerrymandering of constituencies, something recently banned by the U.S. Supreme Court! Since, as experience has shown, whites in the U.S. are still extremely reluctant to vote for African Americans, Latinos or other racial minorities, such minority representation can be expected to decline again in the future.

For Dalits in India, the lack of representation takes different form. Dalits today, because of reservation, have a percentage of MPs equivalent to their proportion of the population - but, as Dr. Choudhary argues, this is not a true representation because they are, in effect, chosen by an upper-caste majority dominated by very different political and social ideas than those held by the majority of Dalits themselves. As evidence he cites data showing that the BJP in the 1996 election won 40 per cent of the seats reserved for the Scheduled Castes while, as surveys have shown, only 10 per cent of Scheduled Castes actually supported them.

Electoral systems based on proportional representation solve this problem in a very simple way. They use, first of all, multi-seat constituencies (these may range from constituencies electing five to seven MPs to constituencies covering a whole country) rather than the single-member territorial constituencies. In the simplest form of PR, the Party List system, political parties put forward their list of candidates. In the Closed List version, voters can only choose the party they want; in the Open List form (which is what is advocated by Dr. Choudhary) they may vote for individual candidates and so have a say in how candidates are ranked in the party lists themselves. The Open List system is obviously more democratic. But in both versions, once the vote is in, each political party is allotted a proportion of the elected MPs according to the vote received; for instance if there is a five-member constituency and Party A gets 40 per cent of the vote while Party B gets 20 per cent, the result will be that 2 MPs from that constituency will come from Party A while one will come from Party B. In an FPTP system, Party B (the minority party) would get completely shut out; in a PR system it will have MPs pretty much according to its proportion of the population.

While PR often sounds complicated to describe, in practice it is quite simple, and it works much better than other systems in ensuring that minority social groups and minority political views - as long as these provide the motives through which people vote - get representation. First- Past-the-Post systems, which Indians (and Americans) are used to thinking of as `normal', may shut minorities out quite thoroughly. This is what has been happening in the U.S., not only with minority social groups such as African-Americans, but also with minority political opinions - the difficulty of any third party making a show in the U.S. system against the total domination of the Democrats and the Republicans is notorious. This has nothing to do with the enslavement of the American population to bourgeois ideology and everything to do with the FPTP electoral system.

This shutting out of minorities is what Ambedkar feared would happen to Dalits in India. From the beginning, he was certain that Dalits would not get representation in the existing FPTP system. As early as 1919, at the time of his testimony before the Southborough Committee, he posed the problem of representation. Arguing that the real social divisions of India were those among caste Hindus, Untouchables, Muslims, Christians, Parsis and Jews, he wrote, ``in a territorial constituency which will group together voters belonging to the above groups, a majority of votes will declare a candidate to be a representative for the constituency in question. Now the question arises: is such a candidate a true representative of the groups covered by the territorial constituency? Is he a true mirror of the mind of the constituency? Is he a representative of all the interests in the constituency?...'' Ambedkar's answer to these questions is a decisive No. (Dr. Ambedkar Writings and Speeches, Volume 1, page 250).

In India by the 1920s religious communities - mainly Hindus and Muslims - were being constituted as the most significant social divisions. Assuming this basic division, Ambedkar stressed that Hindus actually meant caste Hindus. Though he was quite aware of the hierarchies and differences among them and of crucial divisions between Brahmans and non-Brahmans in at least some regions, still by the 1920s most non-Brahmans were being won over and convinced of their Hindu identity. It was Untouchables who were excluded and constituted the minority. Thus the majority tyranny which he feared was that of a caste Hindu group, within which the upper castes or savarnas would be dominant. Breaking the tyranny of this majority was both an immediate and long-term goal for him. As a long-term process, along with Jotirao Phule, Periyar and other great social revolutionaries, he wanted to destroy the Hindu identity and establish a Buddhist one, linking up with Muslims, Christians and others to redefine India in truly equalitarian and democratic terms. But on an immediate basis, he felt that Dalits had to have electoral protection from the tyranny of this caste-Hindu majority. Thus, from 1919 onward, Ambedkar sought for methods of true political representation.

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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