The popular depiction of democracy is always about majority rule. But is majority rule the defining feature of electoral democracy? With winning candidates in a seat typically receiving less than 20% of the total votes in a constituency, is Indian democracy really representative of the majority of the people?
India is gearing up for assembly elections in five states - Chattisgarh, Delhi, Madhya Pradesh, Mizoram and Rajasthan. And in another six months, the world will once again witness electoral politics in action in the largest democracy, with about 800 million registered voters. In none of these elections, though, is the winning party or a coalition, expected to receive the support of a majority of the people in the provinces or nationally.
India's ability to maintain a broadly constitutional and electoral democracy, her political pluralism, despite enormous social-economic diversities, have surprised many political observers, both inside and outside the country. On the other hand, there are those who question India's democratic credentials, given that a winning party might gain political power with the support of barely 10-15% of total voters.
In the first past the post geographical constituency election system, with multiple parties and independent candidates, a constituency may have about 10 candidates, with two or three serious contenders. Typically, there is a general turn out of 60% at elections these days. As a result, in tightly contested seat, the winning candidate may only receive 25% of the votes polled, with the rest getting divided among others. This would translate in to a support base of barely 16% of the total voters in the constituency.
In the forthcoming assembly election in Delhi, opinion polls are generally predicting about 22-28% of votes to each of the three main contending parties - AAP, BJP, INC. In the bipolar election in Rajasthan, with two major parties - BJP and INC, the winning party may gain majority of the seats with less than 40% of the votes polled, or with the support of only 25% of the total voters.
So how representative is Indian democracy, and how democratic is Indian politics?
Democracy is not about majority rule, but about recognition of and respect for minority opinions. So that the minority view of today, may enjoy the freedom to peacefully persuade others, and could become a majority opinion of tomorrow. This is why democracy requires consent of the governed, so that the diverse minorities do not feel so aggrieved as to try and revolt or secede from the rest.
Rather than being its weakness, the low percentage of votes for the winners, actually is the strength of Indian democracy. The low threshold increases the prospect of a new political party to make its presence felt. And if the support base for the new candidate or party is restricted to a small geographic area, then the prospect of actually winning a seat increases significantly.
It is this possibility of making a political impact, which has meant that relatively new parties such as BSP, has been able to rewrite the electoral calculus. The first election it stood to lose, but established its core support base at 2-3% of the population. In the next election, it increased its support base to about 6-8%, while still losing the election, but began to impact the result of the election. Since the gap between the eventual winner and the runner up is usually within that range. It is at this point that BSP emerged as a realistic contender. And with the next two elections, it reached the threshold of 30% of the votes polled, and emerged as the winner in the largest state of Uttar Pradesh in 2007.
Today, AAP, the party which is making its debut in the Delhi assembly election of 2013, is trying to ride on the prevailing anti-corruption sentiment. Opinion polls are projecting it to secure between 20-28% of votes, if these polls are to be believed.
These two examples illustrate the fundamental benefit of the low electoral threshold for a new political entrant in Indian politics. This has encouraged many political aspirants to enter the electoral process. As more people participate actively in the electoral process, the system gains greater legitimacy, even when all, but one, are sure to lose the election.
The possibility of effectively organising a campaign and building a political movement, which can take advantage of the low electoral threshold, have kept most of the political actors within the constitutional process. If that was not the case, there could have been a much larger section of people who would have not only felt disenfranchised, but may have given up on electoral process, and sought to go outside the boundaries of the constitution. One dreads to think if a sizeable minority had opted for extra-constitutional or out right violent methods.
For democracy to survive in large communities and countries, where only representative democracy is possible and practical, democracy has to be minimal, so that it does not offend or alienate too many people. Secondly, as societies become complex, there is a need to recognise the challenges of centralised government, and devolve greater political authority and autonomy to lower tiers of government and local communities.
All politics is local, and it is at the lowest level of political democracy that each vote truly matters. Also, only at such community level, with shared values, can there be a realistic prospect for widest consensus on such complex issues.
Threats to democracy arise from the majoritarian perspective which is reflected in centralisation of decision making. This invariably leads to populism and patronage. Consequent spread of corruption, triggers cynicism, and undermines the legitimacy of democratic polity. Growing illegitimacy provides an incentive for demagogues and dictators to seize the levers of power by promising to solve all the ills of society. And democracy collapses in to despotism.
Indian democracy came quite close to such a collapse in the mid-1970s, when political conflict was rife, and an internal emergency was declared. Thankfully, the crisis was resolved by the historic election of 1977, when the INC lost power at the national level for the first time since Independence. Today, politics itself is facing a credibility crisis. Will legislators and parties elected with the support of small minority of voters be able to deal with this political crisis?
Some have suggested radical reforms to India's political and electoral systems. These range from a presidential form of government with an elected chief executive, to compulsory voting, to proportional system, and a tiered electoral system with run off elections. All these measures are aimed at ensuring that democracy truly reflects the majority opinion, that is at least 51% of the population.
While such proposals may seem very nice on paper, but in practice, they are often not worth the paper they are written on. A majoritarian democracy would soon degenerate in to to mobocracy, as the majority tries to impose its will on the minority. And if those minorities felt sufficiently aggrieved by the majority decision, they will have little hesitation to revolt or worse, take to arms to defend their points of views. A civil war will inevitably ensue.
Democracy functions, because of the consent of the governed. An elected representative in a geographic constituency does not represent only those who voted for her, but also those who may have supported some other candidates. Democracy can only function as long as those who lose the election, continue to accept the rules of political engagement. They do so because of the prospect of becoming a majority view at an election in the not too distant future. And the low threshold only reinforces that possibility.
There are 50 odd political parties represented in parliament, and a few hundred local parties at the state and local level. One may look at this as a confusing maze, illustrating the political fragmentation affecting India today. On the other hand, this plurality reflects the capacity of Indian democracy to accept a wide range of political perspectives. This legitimate space for plurality in politics is the biggest strength of Indian democracy. And this can thrive only because minority political opinions retain the freedom to compete for the hearts and minds of the people. Consequently, those who lose the election don't feel disenfranchised, and therefore don't feel any immediate existential threat.
Consent of the governed is the most fundamental criterion for political participation. Vibrant political competition may not be sufficient, but is surely a necessary condition for a healthy democracy. Democracy is not so much about majority rule, but much more about protecting the legitimacy of political plurality.
Liberty Institute, New Delhi