CNBC TV18 Column : The Need for Parliamentary reform

I write for CNBC TV18 on the need for Parliamentary reform

The last phase of the Indian elections gets over at the end of this week. At the end of 7 rounds, around 60% of the 900 million Indian voters would have cast their vote between the multiple choices that they have before them. Some of these voters would have voted NOTA, because they didn’t fancy any of the candidates presented to them. The election exercise is a massive logistical undertaking, 10 lakh voter booths, 26 lakh bottles of indelible ink, massive security, and hundreds of thousands of people deployed to ensure that as many people as possible can cast their vote.  It is the same as every time. A gigantic logistical exercise to deliver the verdict of democracy.

And, yet when we look at the results each time, we find a certain degree of sameness. Elected representatives, all 543 of them, are mostly men. Mostly from privileged backgrounds – caste and class – holding a set of views that aren’t diametrically different from each other. The elected Parliament misses out on the rich diversity and vibrance of opinions in India. And, going forward, sooner or later India will need to have 3 conversations – the first is expanding the parliament, the second is some form of proportional representation that mirrors the diversity of India, and the third is looking at role of the Rajya Sabha. Most of our structures are 70 years old. They need to be revitalised and recharged for the 21st century.

At the first level, India has too few Parliamentary seats. On an average, each Parliamentarian represents approximately 2.5 million people. For a parliamentary democracy to work, there has to be adequate representation. Right now, there is just too much concentration of power in the hands of the 543, and those who control them. The UK, on whose system the Indian Parliamentary system is based, is a much smaller country – about 40% the size of Maharashtra – has 650 parliamentarians representing 66 million people. The last time Parliament was expanded was over 40 years ago – and brought to 543 seats. At that time the population of India was around 600 million people. A MP per approximately 5 lakh people. Right now, we have doubled in population, with the same representation – and that cannot be good for democracy.

One great way of introducing diversity is simply to double the number of seats in Parliament and ensure that those expanded numbers are utilised to make sure that women, castes, tribes, religion, interests, are represented. Each constituency that exists today, should have two seats instead of one.  It is the simplest way of ensuring that parliament expands, without too much issue. 

Another way would be to look at a form of proportional representation adapted to the Indian parliamentary system.  If you look at Europe, there are environmentalists, labour leaders, conservatives, reformists, and other interest groups represented, in addition to minorities. It isn’t that India is new to proportional representation. The Rajya Sabha is based on a form of proportional representation.

And, finally is the question of what happens to the Rajya Sabha. Is it going to continue to be the home of those who can’t win Lok Sabha elections? Or is it going to continue to be the route to political patronage, or a place to hold a party’s elder citizens. Or is it going to be something else? One way is to borrow from the American Senate, and recast the Rajya Sabha as an institution where state interests are represented, and are brought into play when policy is being decided. The Americans have elections for 2 senators per state, to represent the state interests in Washington DC. Rather than nominating people who are beholden to the party that nominates, it might better to look at the upper house, from purely the point of view of states, and make the members accountable to the people of the states.

As the results near, any conversation of reform of the system will be drowned out by those who win power. Yet, as we go forward into the 21st century, as a vibrant, mature, democracy, this conversation needs to be had. To be functional, parliament has to be representative. Right now, it is not.

News Reporter

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