Monday, May 30, 2011

Mother of democracies is changing; we should look at serious reform

Indian democracy is a photocopy of British democracy. Is it reasonable to hope, therefore, that basic changes in the structure of British democracy will inspire some desperately needed reforms in Indian democracy as well? Probably not because we no longer have influence wielders such as Jawaharlal Nehru, the “last Englishman” in India.

But at the least we might take note of the winds of change slowly wafting across the British isles. The newfound anger against corruption in India is also a wind of change. Corruption will finally be tamed only if electoral reforms are also put in place. Sooner or later we will have to pay attention to what they are doing in England and California, in Switzerland and Australia.

In early May Britain went through a rare referendum. It ended up in a massive defeat for those who wanted to change the existing first-past-the-post voting system (FPTP, the same as in India) to the complicated alternative vote (AV) system. But the general impression remained that the FPTP needed reform because it enabled parties without majority support to form governments. (Think of Narasimha Rao. Think of Yeddyurappa).

The British seem to be in a mood for change, anyway. There has been talk of reducing the size of the House of Commons (current strength 650) and abolishing the House of Lords (current strength 792). Even if they do not go that revolutionary, the idea of hereditary Lords and Anglican bishops getting seats in the House automatically may be abandoned. Ditto with royalty. The unpopularity of Prince Charles which was in direct proportion to the popularity of Princess Diana might have prepared the ground. See what a columnist said in The Economist at the height of the William-Kate wedding brouhaha: “For the sake of the country, but also as an act of kindness, pension the royals off. Time for compassionate republicanism”. Britain without a king or queen is no longer unimaginable.

California is desperately seeking political reform because excessive democracy (yes, there is such a thing!) has rendered it bankrupt and ungovernable. Alone among American states, it has a constitution that allows “direct democracy”. Citizens can hold a referendum and reject laws passed by the legislature. They can also present what are called “initiatives”. If a majority of citizens vote in favour of an initiative, that becomes the law of the land, the elected legislature having no say in the matter.

Initiatives and referendums are the nuts and bolts of Switzerland's democracy. Swiss citizens may vote more than 30 times a year on various local or national issues. But the Swiss have used this system within sensible limits and thus gained from it. Californians overused it until it hurt.

Perhaps there is scope for a modified system of proportional representation (PR) used successfully in countries like Australia. Basically this system ensures that a party gets seats only in proportion to the votes it wins, not more as often happens in India. The point to note is that several different voting systems exist. We need not be stuck with the FPTP system just because Nehru and Patel, Ambedkar and Alladi Krishnaswamy Aiyar chose it in an age of innocence.

Fortunately we have reached a stage where corruption is the biggest political issue in India. Public outrage over corruption has contributed to what would have been unthinkable a few years ago – ministers, corporate chiefs, senior bureaucrats and even sports officials landing in jail. More will be joining them.

This is a healthy sign. The worst thing that can happen in a democracy is the feeling among citizens that their votes do not make a difference. That feeling will slowly evaporate if the Lokpal Bill emerges with clout and then an electoral reform bill eliminates one-man parties and family parties free of accountability. The healthy signs that have surfaced of late must lead up to healthy results. If the political class is allowed to subvert them, the resulting explosion of public anger may surprise even the subverters.