Proportional representation

For fair representation

Print edition : May 30, 2014

At a polling station in Tripura, on April 12, tribal women wait to cast their votes. Proportional representation will enable the diversity of the country to be reflected in the composition of Parliament. Photo: ARINDAM DEY/AFP

Justice B.P. Jeevan Reddy, who chaired the 170th Law Commission Report. Photo: G. Krishnaswamy

It is time India moved towards a system of at least partial proportional representation as the present first-past-the-post system often results in skewed results, with the seat share of parties being totally disproportionate to their vote shares.

EVERY time the nation approaches a general election, there is much talk of electoral reforms. In recent years, several aspects of India’s electoral system have come under the scanner. Media and middle-class attention has focussed, for instance, on the “none of the above” (NOTA) option given to the elector to reject all candidates in the fray, and much energy has been expended on whether this option is the most significant thing to have happened in the arena of electoral reforms in recent times. There are, however, much weightier aspects to electoral reforms, such as the role of money power, the criminalisation of politics, and the question whether elections should be publicly funded so that the role of money power is curbed, and so on. One of the key issues concerns the relationship between voter preferences, as measured by vote shares on the one hand, and seat shares on the other as they emerge in our first-past-the-post (FPTP), winner-takes-all system in each territorial constituency.

Law Commission report

There are several problems with the FPTP system. Under this system, in each electoral constituency, the candidate securing the highest number of votes among all the contestants is declared the winner. If there are only two contestants in the fray, this would also be equivalent to a majority of the valid votes polled, provided there is no option to a voter to reject both contestants. However, as the number of contestants increases, it becomes possible for a contestant to win the election by securing a relatively smaller proportion of the votes polled. Thus, if there are six candidates in the fray, the candidate securing even one vote more than one-sixth of the number of valid votes polled will be declared the winner. This calls into question the legitimacy of the claim of the winner thus declared to represent the electorate, or even that part of the electorate that voted. In India, there have been instances of candidates winning in Assembly and parliamentary elections with less than one-fourth of the votes polled, and this would, of course, be an even smaller proportion of the number of eligible voters in the constituency. This would also mean that a majority of the votes cast would literally not count after the outcome has been declared, and this brings up the question of “wasted votes”. These points have been noted in an important document, the 170th Report of the Law Commission of India chaired by Justice B.P. Jeevan Reddy and submitted as far back as May 1999 1 . The report, which deals with the topic of “Reform of Electoral Laws”, noted:

“There are certain States in India where there are three or four recognised political parties, more or less evenly balanced. In such a situation what is happening is that the winning candidate is receiving, in many cases, 30 per cent or less of the valid votes cast. The remaining 70 per cent or more votes polled (cast in favour of the defeated candidates including independents) are practically going waste, without representation, and without a voice in the representative bodies, namely, Parliament and the State Legislatures.”

If one accepts the proposition that an important requirement of an electoral system is to represent the wishes of the electorate as effectively as possible, it is clear that the FPTP is found wanting in this regard.

There is a second important weakness of the FPTP which was also duly noted by the report. It noted that under FPTP, “… there is no commensurality between the total votes cast in a State or in the country, as the case may be, and the seats obtained by the parties. To be more precise, what is happening is that a political party which has received, say, 32 per cent of the total votes in the country is obtaining 70 per cent of the seats in Parliament, whereas another political party which has polled, say, 29 per cent of the votes is getting 25 per cent of the seats in Parliament. A “swing” of 2 to 3 per cent votes is resulting in a huge difference in the number of seats won.”

Votes & seats

Thus, the FPTP system, which has been followed in India since Independence, and in the United Kingdom, the United States, Canada and several former colonies of Britain, fails a fundamental test of fairness. The seat shares in the FPTP system are almost always at considerable variance with the vote shares of political parties. A study carried out by Larry Johnstone for the Citizen’s Assembly on Electoral Reform in Ontario, Canada, points out several weaknesses of the FPTP 2 . It gives several examples from Canada of the huge discrepancy between the share of votes secured by a political party and the share of seats it may get under the FPTP system. Thus, in 1990, the New Democratic Party (NDP) won 74 of 130 seats with 37.7 per cent of the votes in the general election to the provincial Legislative Assembly; in 1959, with only fewer votes, 36.7 per cent, the Ontario Liberals won only 21 of the 98 seats. Here a 1 per cent difference in votes translated into a 35.5 per cent difference in the share of seats. In the 2001 British Columbia elections, the Liberals won in 77 of the 79 seats (97.5 per cent of seats) with 57.6 per cent of the votes. With 21.6 per cent of the votes, the NDP won only 2 seats, and with a 12.4 per cent vote share, the Greens were shut out 3 .

Proportional representation

An obvious alternative to the FPTP system which foregrounds proportionality in outcomes and seeks to minimise the difference between vote shares and seat shares is the system of proportional representation 4 . There are several variants of the system, but the basic idea is that since India essentially follows, as do most countries, a system of political parties as the main actors in the electoral arena, how can we ensure that the discrepancy between the share of the votes obtained by a political party and the share of the seats it gets do not differ at all or, at least, do not differ appreciably? The 170th Report of the Law Commission made a very specific suggestion in this regard. After explaining the necessity for a proportional representation system in order to ensure fair outcomes overall, and to minimise the extent of “wasted votes”, the report also recognised that we cannot, all at once, move to a completely proportional system. It recommended, therefore, that we may retain the FPTP system in all the existing parliamentary constituencies, and then add another 25 per cent of seats, the allocation of which among recognised political parties will be according to their share in the votes polled, taking the country as a single territorial constituency for this purpose. These seats, allotted to parties based on their vote share in the elections to the existing parliamentary constituencies, will be filled from a list provided by the parties concerned in order of priority.

It is interesting to note that both the major “national” parties, the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), opposed even the limited and partial move towards a proportional system in the seminars held to deliberate on the draft proposals of the Law Commission in this regard. By contrast, the Communist Party of India (Marxist), the CPI, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam and the Shiromani Akali Dal supported the proposal to begin a move towards proportional representation with partial list system. They were in favour of raising the seats to be allocated under the proportionality rule to 50 per cent of the existing parliament seats. What is also interesting is the set of arguments advanced by the two big national parties against a move towards proportional representation. One line of attack was to argue that it would lead to a proliferation of political parties. While this argument is not logically tenable, it especially flies in the face of the need for a political system and a configuration of political parties that would reflect the distinct features of our highly diverse population in terms of region, gender, caste and tribe. The fact that we are a highly unequal society along these axes of caste, gender, tribe and region makes it all the more necessary to ensure that the composition of Parliament, both in respect of parties represented therein and in respect of its members, reflects this diversity and provides an effective forum for addressing and redressing these inequalities. The other line of argument, put forward by a representative of the BJP, was that the introduction of proportional representation would promote casteist and communal forces!

The system of proportional representation, in its several variants, prevails in a number of countries across the world. The countries of Europe, in particular, have plenty of experience with it, and it has worked in these countries in a manner that provides it a fair degree of legitimacy and accountability within the limits of an economic system characterised by high levels of asset inequality and consequent political inequality as well. Among Indian political parties, the Left Parties have, for long, advocated a move from FPTP to proportional representation with a partial list system. This has figured consistently in the election manifesto of the CPI(M) over many elections now.

There are, of course, many important aspects of our electoral system that need to be urgently addressed, such as prohibition of corporate funding to political parties, the need to have state funding of elections and the need to address the criminalisation of the political and the electoral arena. Along with these issues, it is equally important to address the many infirmities of the FPTP system now in practice and begin the move towards a system of proportional representation. It is a sad commentary on the state of the debate on electoral reforms in our country that, despite a pioneering report raising this key issue 15 years ago, there has hardly been any public discussion of it.


1 Accessible at

2 Larry Johnstone, From Votes to Seats (Prepared for Citizen’s Assembly on Electoral Reform, Ontario, Canada) accessed at

3 One can cite many such instances from India. For instance in the 2009 Lok Sabha elections, the Congress won less than 40 % of the votes polled in Andhra Pradesh, but got nearly 80% of the seats while the TSP polled 25 5 of the votes but got only 14 % of the seats. In Bihar, the NDA got only 38 % of the vote, but took 80 % of the seats. In Chattisgarh, the BJP got 91 % of the seats while polling only 45% of the votes. In 2011 assembly elections in West Bengal, CPI(M) won 30.1 % of the votes polled as against 38.9 % polled by All India Trinamul Congress(AITC), but it won only 40 seats as against 184 for the AITC

4 While there are a large number of voting systems across the world-212 by one count (see –they can be broadly classified as: plurality-majority systems, the semi-proportional and the proportional. In greater detail, we have the following systems in operation across the world: First Past The Post (FPTP), Block Vote (BV), Alternative Vote (AV) or Two-Round System (TRS) methods (all of which can be called plurality-majority systems; Parallel systems, the Limited Vote (LV) and the Single Non-Transferable Vote (SNTV) are semi-proportional systems; and List Proportional Representation system, Mixed Member Proportional (MMP) system, and the Single Transferable Vote (STV) system are all proportional systems. For a lucid explanation of these systems, see Larry Johnstone, cited in footnote 2.