Representation and its Discontents: The Conundrum of Elections in India

by Maya John and Mudita Singh Kushwaha

[This is the first part of a two-part series on the critical engagement with the 2024 general elections in India]

EVM

India is in the midst of her eighteenth general election; a mammoth exercise spanning over 543 parliamentary constituencies that are distributed across nearly 97 crore voters. It is unfolding against a backdrop in which the minimum expected standards of a credible election have significantly dipped, given the ruling party’s rampant (mis)use of money, the mainstream media, state machinery, and some would even say the Election Commission. The current ruling dispensation, corrupt to the core, rules by dividing people. This has propelled the liberal opinion that India is on the cusp of the most critical election in her history. Frustration with the growing misuse of institutions and a general repressive crackdown on different movements is palpable. Many then see the 2024 election as a crucial opportunity for safeguarding the country’s Constitution and her institutions. Ironically, such views overlook that the present ruling dispensationhas come to power by primarily using the electoral system enshrined in the provisions and workings of the very same Constitution and established institutions.

This is not to dismiss the cause for alarm. Capitalizing on the electoral machinery, and combining this with the regular use of storm-troopers from multiple Hindu majoritarian mass organizations, the ruling bloc has facilitated the deepening of a totalitarian system. Some are thus encouraged to argue that this may as well be the last election which the country will witness. Deemed as a moment of final reckoning, elections in general are seen as revealing the unequivocal will of the people.


Notably, in the debates on Indian polity, it has been variously argued that the country lacks substantive democracy in which the interests and aspirations of the economically and socially vulnerable groups can be ensured. However, there appears a general consensus that the country enjoys a well-placed procedural democracy, eliding how periodic elections have actually failed to represent the popular will. A closer examination of election results reveals a deep paradox: even though the vast majority of people usually vote for change, they are repeatedly slammed with continuity and the return to power of ruling regimes in which they have no confidence. To elucidate, on 10 March 2022, the result of the Uttar Pradesh provincial assembly election was declared. By the evening, amidst the cacophony arising from newsrooms in India, the claim was made that Chief Minister Yogi was returning to power with a thumping majority, proving doomsayers and skeptics wrong; that the people of Uttar Pradesh willingly returned Yogi back to power; and so on. A closer scrutiny of the results reveals a completely different picture. Uttar Pradesh, the most populous state of the country, despite divisive casteism and communal politics holding sway, saw a whopping figure of approximately 60 percent people voting decisively against Yogi’s party. So, the majority of people who voted did not want Yogi to return to power; they wanted change. And still, given the peculiar system of first-past-the-post elections, Yogi’s party with its limited vote share went onto claim a second term in office.

Long term trends of elections in India reveal the striking fact that despite the larger majority voting against the incumbents, the working of the electoral system prevents people from deposing them from power. The seventeen general elections conducted between 1951-52 and 2019 have secured continuity for the incumbent governments in nearly two-third of cases, while in just about one-third of cases has a regime change materialized. A similar pattern can be seen in most of the provincial-level assembly elections. Further, parties voted into power have never touched even 50 percent vote share in general elections held since 1951-52. Take, for example, in the last 2019 general election, Narendra Modi was returned to power by his party, the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) vote share of merely 37.36 percent. So, around 63 percent voters (the larger majority) did not support Modi, but wanted change.

This is just the analysis of the aggregate results; microscopic studies of constituencies throw up even more bewildering facts. The skewed modus operandi of the electoral system in India renders crores of electors as defeated people. The defeat of candidates who trail behind winning candidates, whatever the margin, translates into the defeat of the large numbers who believed in other candidates than the one declared the winner. To illustrate, in the 2019 general elections, the Machhlishahr constituency in Uttar Pradesh saw the winning candidate claim victory via a wafer-thin margin of just 181 votes; disregarding as a consequence, the choice of 4,88,216 people who voted against him. The case of Dhampur constituency in the Uttar Pradesh assembly election of 2022 is also noteworthy. Here close to 61 percent people voted against the winning candidate, and yet, their votes counted as nothing due to the peculiar system of ‘winner takes it all’. Meanwhile, a party which received a total of 13 percent vote share in the said Uttar Pradesh election ended up getting just one seat out of 403 (a mere 0.25 percent representation)! Taken together, these instances well expose that of the many votes polled in India’s elections, a massive number of votes go waste, which amounts to those people having no voice in terms of their representation. So much for an electoral system that is touted as a great conduit of expression of the people’s will. The bitter irony being that the entire claim of legitimate rule of the modern polity is based on deriving sovereignty from the people through the medium of elections that transfer power to their representatives.

The farcical repetition of the electoral defeat of large majorities has been justified on grounds of the opposition vote being a divided one, thereby enhancing the propensity for the return to power of the incumbent ruling dispensation. However, whether index of oppositional unity is maximum or minimum, it is impossible to dispute the fact that majority of voters are often not in support of the person/party being installed as their de jure representative. And yet, this long-standing reality of the electoral system in India is downplayed. Taken as eternally given, the process of representation is considered almost like a sacred cow that is beyond any evaluation. Once the electoral system is taken as a given and beyond any reproach, the liberals end up condemning the Indian electorate as being culturally backward, ‘irrational’, and ‘failing’ to choose ‘better’ representatives. This is nothing but a pervasive victim blaming.

Installed as de jure and sole representatives of both their supporters and non-supporters in an electoral constituency, the 543 ‘winning’ candidates are said to take up their responsibility as representatives of their parliamentary constituencies. However, the concrete functioning of the parliamentary system makes this a false claim. Here again, we are confronted by one of the deepest flaws and paradoxes of the representative system. Elections do not facilitate the right of all elected representatives to make laws for the people, given the dominance of the ruling bloc over decision-making and policy framing. In real terms, India’s electoral ‘democracy’ boils down to the arithmetic by which the political party or electoral coalition with seats amounting to 50 percent plus 1 (272 seats out of 543 in the case of the Lok Sabha, and so on) enjoys a near monopoly over decision-making in the legislature. Consequently, if elected representatives are not part of the ruling bloc, they are distanced from the powers to formulate laws. This apart, the ruling bloc can use their majority to remove the opposition members from participating in the proceedings of the Parliament, as evident in the record-high number of suspensions of opposition Members of Parliament (MPs) during the December 2023 winter session of the Lok Sabha (lower house of Parliament). 

In reality, decision-making power tends to further narrow down as such power slides from the so-called ruling bloc to the council of ministers. Astute political commentators allege that at present in the ruling party only the duo of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah make all the decisions. Moreover, given the oft exposed subservience of the ruling bloc to the interests of economic elites, it is hard to dismiss growing assertions that many of the country’s laws are allegedly made elsewhere, and are simply confirmed by using the Parliament as a rubber stamp.

It is said that under the present representative system, people transfer their power to political institutions, like legislative assemblies and parliaments. Millions of people are simply summoned to cast their vote and then immediately relegated to oblivion and passivity. The hierarchy between rulers and ruled remains fiercely intact. And so has the perpetual possibility of getting betrayed. Ultimately, more than democracy, it is an electoral autocracy that prevails and orients the country’s political life. Repeatedly, the winning candidates are propelled to the position to rule over the people, including the large majorities of defeated people who have not voted for them. These representatives become a power unto themselves who represent their constituency, more or less, as they please. In other words, they do not function as delegates mandated by the views of the electorate. A major consequence of such absolute power is the intrinsic tendency to misuse state institutions directly/indirectly, and to clamp down on the rights of the defeated people to resist and oppose.

Indeed, what happens to the defeated people who want to react, who want to oppose certain policies pushed through by the ruling bloc? Worryingly, we have increasingly seen that their democratic rights like resisting governmental measures and organizing public protests are being steadily criminalized. This trend has grown rapidly in the past decade. We are, in fact, witnessing the growth of a totalitarian system as electoral autocracy effectively combines forces with the tendency of the ruling party to crush dissent by using police forces as well as quasi militias instilled with the spirit of Hindu majoritarianism. Cyberbullying of citizens expressing critical views on ground realities, heckling of teachers and students who question the attack on the academic autonomy of educational institutions, the repeated use of strong-arm repressive measures including advanced surveillance technology against protest demonstrations, multiple FIRs against leading activists and journalists, and so on, appear as the new order of the day. Many arrested in recent years are languishing in jail, awaiting trial under several draconic laws. Ironically, the so-called rights to free speech and freedom of association, which are supposedly fundamental rights, have long existed, albeit with several riders that now increasingly allow the ruling camp to curb these basic freedoms on the obnoxiously flimsy grounds of ‘law and order’. Correspondingly, people are ‘free’ to raise their voice only if their actions do not amount to real subversion of the order of things which benefits the powers that be.

This situation demands a deep reflection on what is going to be the condition and direction of India in the coming years post this general election. Can we afford the unquestioned continuity of an electoral system that renders the majority of the electorate unrepresented, and fails to provide the ground for social integration in the diverse spectra that is India? What is equally important is an introspection of what will be the fate of defeated people. Will their democratic right to dissent and oppose be further curtailed? Thinking of this large majority, perhaps we can begin to reenvisage our polity in ways that do not merely capacitate institutions of rule based on the narrowest definitions of representation, but also enable the Indian masses to react and resist wherever they deem fit. It is to be seen how the Indian masses construct real democracy for themselves; the (im)possibility of which would be visible only in the mirror of the future.

Dr. Maya John teaches history at the University of Delhi, India. She has been part of the Left movement for around two decades. Email: [email protected].

Mudita Singh Kushwaha is pursuing her doctoral research from the Department of Political Science, University of Delhi, and is active in social movements. Email: [email protected].

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