Upcoming Election in India May Signal Electoral Change

by Matthew Bugajski // Published February 13, 2014



There’s an exciting national election coming up this year in India, but the nation's electoral system may not be suited to handle it.

For more than 15 years, Indian politics have been dominated by two parties: the Indian National Congress (INC), which has been in control of the government with its coalition partners since 2005, and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which last held power in 2004.

But with the rise of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), that may finally be changing. The populist party, whose name means ‘The Common Man’ in Hindi, professes the goal of eliminating corruption. Known for its dramatic protests and urban support, most notably in Delhi, the party is ramping up to challenge at least 300 seats in the general parliamentary election in May. In Delhi’s legislative election in November 2013, the AAP formed a minority government with the INC, a result that many have called an endorsement of change and a precursor to similar results in the upcoming national election.  

The problem is that India’s electoral system is inflexible and unsuited to accommodate several strong parties. That system could seriously hinder AAP’s chances of gaining influence in this May’s election, regardless of its level of nationwide popular support.

Like most former British colonies, India, the world’s largest democracy, uses a winner-take-all voting system to elect members of the Lok Sabha, its lower house. India’s 28 states and seven territories are divided into 543 single-seat districts. Such a system is fundamentally flawed, especially considering the highly fragmented and diverse nature of the Indian electorate. The unrepresentative consequences of these flaws are evident in the 2009 election results.

Fewer than 20% of seats contested in the 2009 general election were won with 50% or more of the vote, indicating that the votes of like-minded voters were likely split due to the abundance of third parties and the winner-take-all system. Furthermore, large parties and those with strong regional support receive a disproportionate number of seats under this system. In 2009, the INC received 28.55% of the vote, but 37.94% of seats. The Sikkim Democratic Front, a small regional party, received .04% of the vote and won one seat, while another regional party with a more distributed voter base, the National Progressive Dravidian Federation, received nearly 20 times more votes but zero seats.

As the divide between representation in parliament and the will of the voters becomes clearer, more Indians are calling for reform. The AAP’s leader, Prashant Bhushan, has publicly expressed support for moving toward a system of proportional representation, what FairVote calls “fair representation voting.” If the AAP gains representation in the Lok Sabha in the upcoming election, it could open the gate for a wave of electoral reforms. Support for a proportional system is not limited to just the AAP: last year, the founder of the Lok Sotta party and the general secretary of the Communist Party of India called for similar electoral reform. Since then, discussion of potential proportional systems has proliferated further, with most proponents suggesting a party list system. Support for proportional representation in India is far from unprecedented. When India's constitution was first drafted, its writers seriously debated whether to use first-past-the-post voting or a proportional system, ultimately reaching a compromise in which the lower house used first-past-the-post voting and the upper house was elected proportionally.

The benefits of fair representation to India would be considerable. Under such a system, India’s legislature would reflect the results of its elections far more closely. Small parties and regional parties would get their fair share of seats, while the system would be far more responsive to changes in the electorate and the rise of new parties like the AAP.

If India were to move to proportional representation, it would be most likely to first consider some form of party list system. Party list proportional representation would ensure that the total number of votes cast for each party directly reflects the number of seats won. To preserve regional representation, a mixed-member proportional system (which FairVote calls “Districts Plus”), in which some candidates are elected from both a party list and others from single-member districts, could also be used.

Alternatively, if a party list system is undesirable, the consolidation of constituencies into multi-member districts would enable the usage of the use of ranked choice voting, also known as the single transferable vote system. This solution would ensure regional representation and would reduce ‘wasted’ votes, allowing voters to vote for smaller parties without concerns of splitting the vote away from other preferred parties. This form of voting is not unknown in India: members of the Rajya Sabha, India’s upper house of parliament, are elected by members of regional legislatures via a single transferable vote.

As India’s voters begin to demand an end to two-party rule, more parties and important political figures are taking notice and endorsing proportional representation. We will be watching the election this May closely, as it may provide the final impetus for major electoral change in India.