A small defence of first-past-the-post

Depending on your political leanings the inevitable, or the unimaginable, happened on Friday–the BJP won a massive majority. Through this election season, I’ve wrung my hands at the ineffectual-ness of the moribund Congress, the lack of stick-to-it-iveness of the AAP, and been sceptical of Narendra Modi. But his performance (and it really is just down to his performance) has been mind-blowing, and it appears that we’re finally set for five years of governance rather than coalition-squabbling. Amit Varma probably summed up my feelings best in his blog post. We’ve already seen some high-profile casualties of the election campaign – Tarun Gogoi has resigned in Assam, while Nitish Kumar is no longer Bihar’s chief minister. I wonder if this will finally see the end of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty, though. On my personal wishlist of politicians who should accept failure are Prakash Karat, Stalin and Rahul Gandhi. Don’t think any of these will happen in a hurry. People also seemed to have suddenly discovered the flaws of the first-past-the-post system, claiming that voters are not adequately represented. If you take a look at the graph below, you’ll see there’s some merit to this argument — this election is the first time since 1984 that the number of seats appears disproportionately higher than the vote share. But that’s a necessary condition — spreading yourself thin, seeking a wide mandate, and focusing on winning at the margin — to secure the mandate necessary to actually govern. Presentation1 On principle, I like the idea that each constituency has a member of parliament, and eventually, after all the political shenanigans around giving someone a ticket, a bunch of voters have final say in whether you will go to parliament. Putting in place party lists will be another move away from accountability, and could mean that there’s no real way to get rid of a politician who is terrible at his or her job. The way the system currently works, if voters are finally tired of a venal politician, say A Raja, they can finally boot him out of office through the ballot. And if there were other DMK politicians who other groups of voters liked, they could keep them (or vote them into power). With proportional representation, every vote for a party will become a vote for people picked by the senior leadership of the party–hypothetically, if the DMK received 5 seats, you can bet those 5 seats would go to people whose last name was Karunanidhi. Grassroots politicians hoping to win by just doing their best for their constituency would be marginalised. Plus it would lead to an ossification of our existing social divisions: people would have an incentive to keep voting along caste and religious lines, in an effort to ensure their representatives get a seat in parliament. Which will mean repeats of the unholy, messy, coalitions that have led to stasis in recent years. All forms of government involve a trade off between effectiveness and representative-ness. You could theoretically give all power to a supreme ruler (things would get done, but you’d have no way of influencing policy), or go to the public for every decision (even approving the building of a street lamp would take years, forget about bigger things). And despite the fact that I am a proud lily-livered-liberal, I’m quite happy with the way the system works, and quite optimistic about the next five years. Here’s hoping the BJP and Mr Modi can finally bring about some sorely-needed change, and that we as an electorate can finally stop voting with our identities, and vote instead with our interests.

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