FPTP and Democracy

It is often that the citizens of India question themselves in disbelief at the decisions our elected representatives in the government take on our behalf. Such a questioning of public policy is generally silenced in discourse by the oft-told pacifier, “We are a democracy, we were the ones who elected them, ‘they’ represent us”. When the common man feels his point of view or paradigm of thought nowhere finds a representation in political discourse, he does not know that this feeling of one’s personal beliefs being delegitimized by governmental discourse is not a delusion, but rather a very fiscal implication of the FPTP electoral procedure India employs.

FPTP, or First-Past-The-Post system of voting basically means that whoever gets the most number of votes wins. The person with the numerical majority of votes is chosen to represent the constituency in the Lok Sabha or the State Legislative Assemblies, irrespective of the percentage of votes he/she gets viz.a.viz. others. There is no minimum benchmark of votes. This means that a candidate could get elected even if the majority of voters voted against him. The lowest vote percentage on which an Indian candidate has ever won a seat as an MP was in 1967, when PK Khanna of Congress won with a meagre 15.6% from Shahjahanpur, UP.

However, the most defective feature of the FPTP is that the percentage of votes gets translated into seats in a disproportional manner. To help illustrate this vice with an example, in 2014, BJP won 31% of the vote-share but this translated into 52% of the seats in Lok Sabha, while Congress with 19% votes got 8% of seats. Similarly, BSP with 4.14% vote share got no seats in the Lok Sabha while Trinamool Congress with 3.8% votes got 34 Lok Sabha Seats. This disproportional representation because of disparity between vote percentage and number of seats in the Lok Sabha means that parties whose electoral base is spatially consolidated benefit while parties whose support is regionally scattered tend to be heavily disadvantaged.

Advocates of the FPTP tend to advance the argument that it is the simplest for all illiterate people to understand and that it is much quicker than its alternative methods. The cry for reforming the electoral system has come many times, but political parties with a strong majoritarian vote base tend to make sure such reform doesn’t take place as this would force them to relinquish some of their current status quo seats to the minorities who are currently underrepresented. Dr B.R. Ambedkar at the time of making of the Constitution had considered using a Proportional Representation system rather than simple majority to accommodate minorities, but later he changed his views in favour of the FPTP under grounds that a diverse country like India needed a strong center with a strong majority in the lower house to prevent it from disintegrating. Dr. Ambedkar suggested reservation instead for religious minorities to ensure their representation. However, later the reservation for communal minorities was omitted and the electoral system was not reconsidered either, rendering minority representation at a disadvantage since the very beginning of independent India.

India follows the FPTP under the Westminster model which UK, Canada and few other countries also follow. Recently however, many countries have been reconsidering this model and changing to other models, most popular being the PR or Proportional Representation model. The most number of countries in the world, ie. 83 countries follow this system. The proportional representation procedure has many variants, but it basically means that the number of seats are accorded in the same proportion as the percentage of votes. This will require either a decrement in the number of constituencies or an increase in the number of seats. The number of constituencies cannot be reduced because the Indian voter to MP ratio is 1.5 million to 1, while in the UK’s context one MP represents 70,000 voters. This leaves increment in the number of Lok Sabha seats as the only option for implementing the PR system.

Variations of the PR system can be made by combining it with the FPTP as countries like Nepal and Germany have done. Besides the PR system, the only other alternative is having a run-off election or 2 elections to shortlist candidates. Run-off elections are not feasible for India because of its large voting population, which amounts to more than 1 billion. Another point of argument is that in India candidates are elected to represent the regional peculiarity of the constituency, but this representation becomes meaningless when candidates from any region can stand for any constituency’s seat.

As highlighted, the winner-takes-all approach of the First Past The Post voting system is one of the biggest impediments to making India a democracy in substance and not just in name.

Picture Courtesy- Electoral Reform Society

This article is a part of the ‘Of Tugs and Tussles: General Election 2019’ feature series where we focus on quality content written and chosen to focus on specific areas surrounding elections. Find a link to other articles of this feature series here: 

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