The odyssey of Indian democracy
Revisit the electoral framework for better representation
By Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay
October 25, 1951 is an important date in Indian politics. On this date sixty years ago, two small assembly constituencies high up in the hills of Himachal Pradesh went to polls to elect members of the legislative assembly of what then called a ‘Part ‘C’ State’. They simultaneously also voted for Lok Sabha—till that time called House of People— candidates of their choice.
This began the long process of Independent India’s first general elections to constitute Parliament, and get the first elected governments in place – at the Centre and in the States. In fact, the process could be considered to have begun even earlier – on September 10, 1951 – when the first notifications under sections 15 and 17 of the Representation of the People Act, 1951, were issued in respect of Himachal Pradesh. This entire process continued for seven months and ended only in the summer next year by when the election to the West Bengal Legislative Council was completed on June 4, 1952.
The seven months and odd period – beginning in October 1951 – saw the emergence of the largest democracy in the world and demonstrated that despite cynical apprehensions, Indians could actually conduct their own affairs. By the end of this process, India had elected 489 members of the Lok Sabha; 3,283 members of state assemblies in 21 States divided into Parts ‘A’, ‘B’ and ‘C’; 204 members of what was still called Council of States (now Rajya Sabha) and 419 members of State Legislative Councils. Towards the end of this process, Indians had also elected through an indirect process a President and a Vice President besides the Speaker and Deputy Speaker of Lok Sabha. More than 17 crore voters were eligible in this biggest ‘festival’ of the world’s newest democracy out of which almost 45 per cent actually came out to cast their votes. The figure was impressive given the literacy and awareness levels in the country at that time.
Fifteen elections later, the scale of the exercise has become more gigantic and more difficult to manage because now it is no longer possible to hold all elections in a single time window. This is because after the general election of 1967, a fractured mandate resulted in premature dissolutions of several state assemblies followed by the split in the ruling Congress which eventually led to Indira Gandhi calling for mid-term elections in early 1971. Now India witnesses serial elections and not a single year goes past without an election in a politically significant and numerically strong state.
There have been calls by several political leaders over the past two decades for trying to hold election once again at the Centre and in the states simultaneously. But as the mandate has become more fractured, it has precluded the possibility of single party governance at the Centre and in a large number of states and this proposal has thus remained a non-starter. But there are other elements from the elections held in the infancy of the Indian Republic that could be considered – and may be reintroduced – to tide over the contemporary challenges.
One of the most significant differences between the first two general election (1951-52 & 1957) and now is that earlier a large number of constituencies had more than one seat. In the first general elections there were 314 single-seat Lok Sabha constituencies, 172 double-seats constituencies and one triple-seat Lok Sabha constituency. In 1957, there was a slight variation to this number as the concept of a triple-seat constituency was abandoned. The final numbers were: 312 single-seat Lok Sabha constituencies and 182 double-seat constituencies in the Lok Sabha. The same principle continued in the state assemblies where double-seat and triple-seat constituencies were adopted to ensure representation for people from the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes.
By the time the third general elections were held in 1962 it was felt that the change in the political landscape in the decade since 1952 needed to be taken into account. Before the reorganisation of States in 1956 there were 24 States with legislatures, three without legislatures and the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, which were in a separate category. After reorganisation, the numbers of States with independent legislatures came down to 14. Four of the former Part ‘C’ States and the two groups of Islands were made into Union Territories without legislatures of their own. All this was done before the general elections in 1957. Between the 1957 and 1962 polls, another very significant development was the bifurcation of the State of Bombay with the passage of the Bombay Reorganisation Act by Parliament in April 1960.
Some other changes in the geo-political boundaries within India were politically significant but did not lead to major changes in extent and numbers of constituencies. What however was more significant was the decision to do away with all two-member constituencies for both the Lok Sabha and State Legislative Assemblies and divide each of them into two single-member constituencies. This naturally altered the shape of many existing parliamentary and assembly constituencies and also changed the manner of electing representatives in reserved seats.
Two member constituencies were done away with from 1962 also because of the opposition of political parties and political leaders who argued that campaigning in double-seat constituencies cost them twice as much because the size of the constituency was invariably the double and the electorate was also almost twice as much the single-seat constituencies. To understand this imperfect manner of delimitation look at the figures from 1951-52 polls. North Bengal, the only triple-seat constituency had 931,845 voters while single-seat constituencies had between 3.5 to 4 lakh voters and double-seat constituencies had upward of 7 lakh voters. The same ratio continued in 1957 save for the conversion of the only triple-seat constituency.
In 1962, the double-seat constituencies were split up into two constituencies. Thus while the number of seats in 1962 remained constant at 494 as in 1957 the number of parliamentary constituencies went up from 403 in 1957 to 494 in 1962. A similar reworking of figures was done for the state assemblies.
Since 1962 the number of seats increased over the next few polls till it reached the current number of 543 in 1977 after which there was no further increase in the number of seats in Lok Sabha. The number of reserved seats increased from 109 in 1962 to the current figure of 123.
For almost two decades the issue of reservation of seats for women in legislatures has remained in limbo as a large number of parties have been in perpetual obstruction-mode due to pressure from patriarchal minded political leaders who fear loss of home base due to the possibility of their terrain becoming reserved for women candidates. Since March 2010, the Lok Sabha has not taken up the Bill despite having been passed in the Upper House.
As of now, the Bill cannot have smooth passage unless a new beginning is made. A way out can be by going back to the principle of double-seat constituency. In a nutshell what can be examined is simple: Revive the old principle of double-seat constituencies in which the second seat is reserved for women candidates; increase the number of constituencies to retain the current number of unreserved (for women) seats; and rotate constituencies that elect a second candidate – a woman. All this could be done without redrawing constituencies so it will not raise the spectre of redrawing boundaries of constituencies and also not add to inconvenience of candidates by forcing them to cover more ground during campaign in the restricted resource legally allowed by Election Commission now. Women candidates can also be free to contest from non-reserved seats like candidates from the Scheduled Castes and Tribes are free to do so.
If we were to follow this basic principle, the number of seats in Lok Sabha would go up to about 820. The House of Commons has 650 members for a country of the size and population of the United Kingdom without any eyebrows being raised. If there are 820 seats in Lok Sabha then the number of seats reserved for women would be slightly more than 270 to ensure that the present strength of Lok Sabha remains intact in the not reserved for women category.
There of course are other issues to be resolved including increasing the proportion of seats reserved for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes and how they are identified. There is also the issue of working out the logistics of rotating seats reserved for women. None of these issues can be tackled at length in an article for a periodical. Nonetheless, none of these issues are difficult to resolve if the political will is there.
In the diamond jubilee year of the Indian electoral system, this is one gift that the political leadership can give to the nation. No system is perfect and we can only strive towards improvement. Perfection, in fact, will always be an elusive human goal. This, as a wag said, was why erasers continue to be made. Or why the Backspace button exists on the keyboard. Our political leadership needs to take out their erasers and use the Backspace button for further improving our electoral system.
(The author is a senior print & TV journalist. He is also an author, writer and anchors the weekly show – A Page From History on Lok Sabha TV)