New Parliament Building Poses Population Challenge to Future of India's Democracy and Federalism

Far from thinking of increasing the strengths of our MPs, I would even go a step further and say that their numbers could be pruned.

The upcoming inauguration of our new parliament building, which is the crown jewel in the Central Vista revamp pushed through by our government at breakneck speed, had rightfully been the subject of some heated debate in the past. However in the ‘heat and dust’ of it all, what we seem to have missed was a critical assessment of the ‘centre point’ of the entire exercise – that is, our new 1,272-seater parliament and its effect on the future of our democracy in general and our federal structure in particular.

It requires no Sherlock Holmes to deduce that no one makes such a large parliament unless there is also a concurrent plan to increase the strength of our members of parliament (MPs), currently standing at 543 and 245 for the Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha respectively. Our media has also been hinting at this likely increase and even Pranab Mukherjee has been on record supporting the need for such an increase on grounds of the population-to-MP ratio.

As per the current rules, each MP is supposed to represent 8.5 lakh electors. But with the increase in population, this figure of electors in a parliamentary constituency could have gone up to as much as 16 lakh. It is most likely that it is this yardstick that prompted Pranab Mukherjee to come up with the ball park figure of 1,000 MPs required to represent us effectively.

Therefore, to my mind, an increase in the number of our MPs in the near future is a given. All it will take is a constitutional amendment for the strength of our MPs to be increased by the government of the day.

Proportional representation is at the heart of an effective democracy and this is most effective where the elector-to-representative ratio is kept as small as possible, provided of course that the house of representatives does not get too unwieldy. Further, this proportional representation rule (with a small elector-to-representative ratio) is more effective and applicable at the state assembly and lower levels, where it is essential that the voice of people is projected and resolved effectively.

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At the national level, the same principle would have fit the bill had all our states been roughly equal in population size, being small in size and having a zero growth rate as well. Sadly, this is not the case in our country.

The result is that even with the present Lok Sabha setup of 543 seats, not only does the house prove to be quite unmanageable, but more importantly, our federal structure is taking a beating from states with larger populations holding a greater sway in national politics. This situation is thus bound to get even worse if the strength of our MPs is increased based on this current proportional representation rule, since the system will further tilt in favour of our more populous states.

India is a union of states: and to my mind, it already resembles a sort of a European Union model – one has only to look at the geographic distances and diversity in populations between, say Kerala and Bihar, and compare it to similar distances and diversity between Portugal, and say Hungary, to understand the comparison I am making.

Ideally, in a union or federation of states, all states should have an equal say at the national-level representative body. It has to be realised that a small, strategic border state – such as Sikkim – may have an issue bearing serious national repercussions but gets glossed over, purely because the state may have only a lone MP or two who would struggle to have to have their voice heard above the high decibel levels generated by other MPs, each pushing the respective agendas of their larger states.

So, I think a time has come when ‘we the people of India’ must take urgent steps to ensure that the federal features of our democratic structure are protected by having no further increase in the number of our MPs based purely on an elector-to-representative ratio, since it will be only the more populous states that will stand to benefit.

There may even be a curious situation when some states, who have controlled their populations, end up surrendering some of their existing seats to states that have not controlled their population growth rates as well as they should have. Therefore, far from thinking of increasing the strengths of our MPs, I would even go a step further and say that their numbers could be pruned, given the larger reach of the communication instruments and technology available to MPs to interact with their electorate. Not only will there the exchequer benefit by way of reduced pay and pensions, but this step will also promote the philosophy of minimum government and maximum governance.

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It is now up to our constitutional experts (and the media too) to usher in a vigorous debate on our democratic structure, with a view to arrive at a solution ensuring that its federal features are preserved and strengthened. The European Union model – where member states while having a population-based representation also have a certain number of minimum seats ensuring the representation of lesser-populated states’ interests – could be a model for us to look at.

The argument for having one MP per 8.5 lakh electors is also not sound, since even with this ratio it is hardly feasible for the MP to feel the pulse or know all of their electors physically or personally. They would perforce have to depend on the 8 to 9 MLAs representing the legislative assembly constituencies in his parliamentary constituency to get electors’ feedback, besides of course having their own prophylactic network with them.

The Indian MP could thus represent even 16 lakh or more electors through the 16-17 MLAs without a drop in their effectiveness as a representative. With a new elector-to-MP ratio as the base line at the national level, we could then think of having a certain minimum number of MPs for each of our states, with the maximum number also being laid down in a manner that the progressive difference in the representation of states does not exceed ~10%.

Concurrent with this much needed reform, there is also a need to bring in a different reform to alter our ‘first past the post’ election system, in which there can be a situation when candidate may get elected with as low as 10% of the votes when there are, say, 11 candidates in the fray. There should thus be a second or even a third round till the winning candidate secures at least 50% of the votes polled.

Even at the grassroots, there must be a law that the nomination of party candidates must follow a bottom-up approach, wherein party members select their candidate, as against the current system where we often see candidates being thrust on constituencies from the central headquarters of a political party.

It is my view that there is no time like the present to take stock of our democracy and apply the necessary course corrections to preserve and strengthen our democracy’s basic features our Constitution defines them. There could also be no better time than this 75th year of our life as an independent democratic nation to undertake this vital exercise.

The writer is a veteran Lieutenant General who commanded the strategic High Altitude 14 Corps at Leh. He retired as the Deputy Chief, HQ IDS. He has also authored a book titled India’s Armed Forces: Tempering the Steel.