Does Every Vote Count? Assessing India’s Electoral System

The Indian electoral system is fraught with difficulties that obscure the democratic ideals of an election.

With over 850 million people in India being eligible to decide who forms the next government, the Indian vote has been likened to a weapon that strengthens Indian democracy. But, does every vote really count? India’s first-past-the-post (FPTP) electoral system has been criticised for disproportionate representation in Parliament—during the 2014 general election, only 31% of total votes were in favour of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), yet the party formed the   government with an absolute majority.

This reading list examines the structural problems that exist within the present electoral system that allow those who don’t necessarily represent voters’ interests to come into power. 

1) Can We Have a ‘Free and Fair’ Election?

While the Election Commission of India (ECI) should be commended for its successes—stemming electoral violence, voter intimidation, voter impersonation and booth capturing—larger issues still remain unaddressed. Rashmi Sharma writes that there are three major problems that plague the Indian electoral system today, namely money power in the form of voter bribery, promoting candidates with criminal records, and the manipulation of media through paid news. 

The ECI has attempted to address these issues by appointing expenditure observers, countermanding elections for voter bribery, and monitoring paid news. But, for now, these problems remain. Unlike fraudulent voting and booth-capturing, these problems are tougher to address. They do not take place on a single day or at one place, but are spread out. Checking them involves an even larger number of agencies. Whether, and to what extent, the broad mandate of the ECI allows it to address these problems is open to interpretation.

Further, Sharma argues that the ECI’s autonomy is paramount to maintaining free and fair elections, which can only be ensured by capable leadership with political support.

As political support declines, and generally, for institutions whose mandate can clash with the interests of powerful actors, additional strengths are necessary …  The match between institutional responsibility and authority gains significance, particularly in a federal structure. Detailed laws and rules that support the institution’s mandate act as a bulwark against lawlessness, if they are realistic and incorporate transparency and public accountability. 

2) Does India’s Electoral System Work?

While initially beneficial, the  first-past-the-post (FPTP) system now gives the single largest party seats disproportionate to its vote share. This has been accentuated by the fragmentation of politics into a number of regional parties. The consequences are stark: in 2014, the BJP won over 50% of parliamentary seats despite having only 31% of the vote share. Geoffrey Macdonald and Babak Moussavi write that the FPTP system exacerbates a major issue in the Indian democratic system—wasted votes.

 Muslims, who constitute 15% of the population, were “rendered ineffective” during the BJP’s victory—92% voted for another party, predominantly the Congress …  In some districts in 2014, victorious candidates won with less than 30% of the vote. Such results effectively disenfranchise over 70% of voters, who receive no representation for their vote.1 A high degree of wasted votes is not only undemocratic, but can undermine broad-based constituency services—a common and positive feature of the FPTP systems. Parties that win with a small percentage of the vote have little incentive to provide public goods to the broader population.  

MacDonald and Moussavi theorise that the benefits of a FPTP system in India are largely absent. The system is largely known for producing a two-party electoral competition and a clear opposition, but this opposition is often fractured as it is a grouping of multiple regional parties. 

The BJP’s parliamentary control was won with a plurality of Indian voters and an even smaller plurality of the Indian electorate. Most Indians voted for a different party or not at all. Though the BJP’s win was undeniably legitimate, its electoral backing is actually quite narrow. This paradoxical outcome was the result of institutional rules that pervert the democratic process and empower the ruling party well beyond its actual support — thus creating the illusion of a landslide. 

3) Can the Electoral System Be Changed? 

MacDonald and Moussavi also argue that while electoral systems are tinkered with, they are very rarely overturned. Discarding a long standing voting system, while facing institutional resistance, is also not a politically favourable process, as parties come into power only when they have mastered their way around the present system, and thus have little desire to change the status quo.

Electoral systems are rarely overturned, however. Once established, they “often remain fairly constant as political interests solidify around and respond to the incentives presented by them” (Reynolds et al 2005: 1) … A common complaint prior to the 2014 election was that India lacked a “strong” government. It would seem odd, therefore, to consider changing the system to reduce the prospect of parties winning electoral majorities … Electoral systems produce incentives that impact behaviour, effectiveness and representativeness. If the best defence for India’s FPTP system hangs on its “simplicity,” it might be time to reconsider.   

4) Who Do We Vote For?

In the Indian electoral system, candidates are not elected to represent the country. Rather, they are elected to represent the constituency from which they are elected. Anupam Saraph argues that this geographical representation is meaningless when candidates stand from constituencies that they are not domiciled in. 

Must political parties usurp the geographical or stakeholder representation by converting the candidate into a numbers game to form a government (and render the candidate, geographical or stakeholder community representation irrelevant for representation of the people, governance or development)? Can it not be left to the parties to inspire national policies that local (independent) candidates may support? 


Read More:

Electoral System: Urgency of Basic Reforms | S R Sen, 9 February 1991
Reforming Indian Electoral Process | Sanjay Kumar,  24 August 2002
Electoral Reforms: Need for Citizens’ Involvement | Jagdeep S Chhokar, 20 October 2001

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