Reducing polarisation in an electoral democracy

On the eve of the formation of the Indian republic, Dr Ambedkar made a prophetic statement. This was part of his historic speech to the Constituent Assembly in November 1949. Just three months later the Republic of India was established on January 26, 1950.

Dr Ambedkar warned that India must confront the contradiction between political equality and widening social and economic inequality. Political equality is the very basis of India’s constitution, whereas the social and economic inequalities are evolutionary realities of Indian society and economy.

Social inequality is a fact of our history, and the modern republic is an attempt to contain it, if not undo it entirely. Economic inequality is a consequence of the market-based capitalist system that we adopted.

Social inequality persists or worsens unless there are social policies to counter it. Economic inequality persists because that is a feature of the capitalism’s market-based system.

The recent works of economists Thomas Piketty and others show that not only does capitalism leave inequality intact, but makes it worse over a period of time. 

Hence to heed Dr Ambedkar’s prophetic warning we need proactive social and economic policies to counter both trends. For this we have our democratic system of government.

To address both social and economic inequalities, whether through affirmative action, reservation, redistribution or progressive taxation, these are all contentious issues, and that is why we resolve them in a democratic way. Democracy is about such conversations.

The best definition of democracy was given in just ten words, by one of America’s most outstanding Presidents, Abraham Lincoln. He said, it is a system of government, which is “by the people, of the people and for the people”. But how does one express the “will of the people”? Mostly by elections or referendums.

However, democracy is not just about elections and electing representatives, but rather the manner in which we run our government itself. If we see democracy as merely conducting elections, we have missed its true meaning. It is about discussion, conversations, debates, disagreements, and yes, about dissent too.

It is about distribution of power, ensuring that it does not become excessively unequal, and about checks and balances on the exercise of power. But ultimately democracy is about decisions that affect our daily lives. In a democracy we can disagree vehemently, but we need not become disagreeable.

Once the debate and discussion is over and decisions are taken, all parties have to accept and move on. Thus, however bitter an election is fought, once the outcome is determined, everyone accepts it. This is true even if the decisions are close, such as Brexit in UK, the election of President Trump in the USA or cutting of trees in Aarey in Mumbai to make way for the metro.

Even to this day, four and half years later, there are leaders in the UK who have to remind the public at large, that Brexit was a democratic outcome, and should be implemented, not opposed.

The same is true, that many in the United States have to be convinced and told that election of Trump was over in November 2016, and he is the President for all Americans.

Aarey tree cutting still has bitter opposition despite a court order. Of course, now the matter rests with the apex court (the “checks and balances” of the democratic system), and hence the democratic debate is still open.

Let’s step back, and ask if there is something about democracies which lead to extreme polarisation, much like capitalism leads to extreme income or wealth inequality. In a multi-party democracy like ours, parties compete to win elections, and form the government.

Since the winner in our system of election, is the party which is “first past the post” (FPTP), it is enough to get more votes than others. In a typical four-way contest, with only half the electorate voting, the 50 percent votes would be divided by four in an equal contest.

So, any party getting say 12.5 or 13 per cent of the total votes, can win. The more intense the electoral competition, the more the focus on the “core base” of 12.5 or 15 or 18 per cent, whatever it may be. In such a competition it serves the competing parties to highlight and magnify the differences.

If the election is fought on issues of identity, caste etc, then highlighting differences becomes easier. No wonder many elections in India are fought on the basis of identity politics, ignoring issues of development and livelihoods, let alone ideologies. It hardens support of the core base, consolidating the “12.5 per cent” so crucial for a victory in FPTP.

As elections become intensely competitive, with use of modern technologies of micro marketing, messaging through electronic and social media, money power becomes very important.

This has been repeatedly highlighted by various Election Commissioners, as well as Law Commissions. Money power can lead to malpractice, violation of election laws.

The wider issue of electoral reforms including reducing money power, eliminating criminals, and making the electoral process free, fair and fearless, is beyond the scope of this column.

But on the specific issue of reducing pre-poll polarisation, one step could be moving away from FPTP. That is adopting the French electoral system, which is a two-stage process. In the first stage all parties compete, and in the second stage only the top two fight it out.

So, in the second stage the winning party has to win at least fifty percent of the votes. The second stage is unnecessary if in the first stage itself the winning party wins more than fifty percent of the votes cast.

The requirement of a broad-based victory, ensures that parties can’t appeal only to a narrow base, or focus on only highly divisive identity-based issues. Perforce the discussion and debate would have to move to development, livelihoods, environment and social issues. 

FPTP has its own merits in a multi-party, diverse democracy like India, and hence need not be wholly jettisoned. But we have to find a way to reduce the polarisation of electoral politics, much like redistributive taxation is used to reduce excessive wealth inequality in capitalist economies.

Ajit Ranade is an economist and Senior Fellow, Takshashila Institution. Syndicate: The Billion Press