There is an immediate need for policy and legislative forecasting as to what ought to be the most appropriate manner in which delimitation needs to be resumed, in light of the extensive structural changes over the past 50 years.
THE unique harm and vulnerability electoral processes face in their pursuit to maintain the democratic and political fabric of a country are its partisan politics, vested interests, and the unchecked power of political parties that have the ability to dilute constitutional safeguards in toto.
The time sensitivity of delimitation, coupled with the potential political push back any restructuring will have, requires careful, methodological and contextual application of the apportionment formula.
This article attempts to explore i) the political and constitutional justification for instituting the freeze on delimitation, ii) the rational and active choice grounded in constitutional and legal reasoning, to consistently follow through the freeze, engaging in a comparative analysis with the apportionment of solely the Scheduled Caste (SC) /Scheduled Tribe (ST) seats, and iii) data-driven analysis mapping the impact in status quo coupled with assessing the applicability of the ‘Cambridge Compromise’ within the Indian Context.
Please note that this essay does not seek to delve into the efficiency, modality, and constitutionality in the composition and processes of the Delimitation Committee itself, and will restrict itself to specifically mapping and impacting its trajectory.
Delimitation furthers the apportionment of constituencies proportionally in conjunction with the ‘one person one vote’ principle that allows for the legitimate transferability and visibility of their votes within the larger democratic scheme. The constitutional framework is indicative of the need to have consistent delimitation exercises, every 10 years, post every census under Articles 82 and 83 of the Constitution, coupled with providing the power to legislate matters related to delimitation under Article 327, which is not subject to judicial review.
The glaring problem was that due to the simultaneous use of two different censuses, the percentage of reservation seats that was being calculated in concurrence with their population according to the 2001 census, was being done when the base seats across the country remained the same as per the 1971 Census, creating a new layer of sophistication and complexity.
The political implications are broadly two-fold: i) potential to favour/provide an advantage to individual political parties/candidates in the drawing of boundaries, and ii) state-wise allocation of seats which will change both the empirical data and standard of geographical pattern of representation across the country. Post the setting up of three delimitation commissions until 1972, the Union Government led by the Indian National Congress with Indira Gandhi at the helm, imposed a freeze on this delimitation exercise till the year 2001 under the 42nd Constitutional Amendment.
The justification was two-fold:
That it was disproportionately punishing states that were successful in their implementation of the Family Policy initiatives. The inherent problem with this line of argumentation, is that it fails to adequately weigh one aspect of State policy (that is, population control) along with denying the basic foundational principle of democracy, which is effective and proportional representation. The baggage this argument carries is in its tone-deafness to the complex intersection of historical, economic and social contexts in whichsuch policies are meant to be enforced particularly, without any sensitization or monitoring of supplementary policies. For instance, literacy and female educationcan lead to (1) desired family size, as educated women are likely to voice out their resentment against repeated pregnancies, (2) the relationship between desired family size and planned number of births, and (3) the ability to achieve the planned number of births.
Shadowed political interests to ensure that southern India does not lose seats based on their population, given that the Congress was facing a highly turbulent and aggressive sentiment against its policies in northern India. This is adequately evidenced by thedrop in its national vote sharefrom 43.5 per cent to 34.5 per cent between 1971 and 1977, with the predominant loss coming from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar where forceful sterilizationhad been carried out, creating an active incentive to ensure the seats in south India remain the same, wherein no such forceful compulsion was carried out. The active usage of negative and positive incentives was formalized: in Kerala, for instance, people were paid almost a month’s salary in advance along with greater economic benefits, in contrast to Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan, wherein salaries/loan approvals of employees were deliberately withheld.
Fast forward to 2001, the year the freeze on delimitation was supposed to expire: the then ruling National Democratic Alliance (‘NDA’)-run Union Government, which had a clear political incentive to have resumed delimitation, extended the freeze till 2026 with identical justifications. There was a twofold reasoning to not have corrected this 25 year old deviation: i) academics K.C. Sivaramakrishnan and Alistair McMillan noted that the real fear was not about population control but about political control as southern regional parties were part of the NDA and were crucial for the survival of the government, and ii) larger southern expansion aspirations for the Bharatiya Janta Party (‘BJP) that led the NDA government, especially with assembly elections in Kerala and Tamil Nadu in May of 2001.
Assuming we want to carry out the most utopian idea of having an elected member representing 0.5 million of the population in India, it would mean that at least 2,760 elected representatives would be required to form the Parliament in order to address this representational deficit.
The semblance of rationality seemed to be returning in reverting the freeze on delimitation in 2008, but it was masked by a deliberate and inconsistent approach to only remove the freeze for the SCT and ST seats and adjust them according to the 2001 Census in 2008 vie the Election Commission’s Delimitation of Parliamentary and Assembly Constituencies Order, 2008 – one of the most structurally intuitive appeasement policies till date. The glaring problem was that due to the simultaneous use of two different censuses, the percentage of reservation seats that was being calculated in concurrence with their population according to the 2001 census, was being done when the base seats across the country remained the same as per the 1971 Census, creating a new layer of sophistication and complexity.
There are three key observations that one ought to make from an analysis drawn from author and academic Milan Vaishnav and Ph.D. scholar Jamie Hinston’s mapping of the malapportionment system in India at present:
i) Polar disparity with respect to the extent of under/over representation between the extremes, that is between Tamil Nadu and Uttar Pradesh, ii) the number of seats that are required to be added/removed in order to meet the equilibrium point of population-based electoral systems, and iii) the viscerality of the political pushback from the South given the sudden removal/changes the lifting of the freeze will have.
The current BJP-led NDA, if it is able to win the general election again in 2024 and retain the Union Government with a majority, has every incentive to expand the northern central belt, specifically Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, given its increasing presence and vote share over the past two general elections here, coupled with its significantly smaller political footprint in the South.
The overarching theme that connects these observations is that one could argue that the ability to have been receptive to such changes through delimitation may have been better accepted by political parties, voters and other related stakeholders through a phase-out mechanism, as intended in the Constitution for the following reasons: i) gradual acceptance for change and lesser number of seats to give up or receive per state; ii) better tracking and scrutiny of developmental indicators, population control measures, and outcomes and rationale within the spaces of the Parliament and state legislatures; and iii) devising an alternative formula taking into account the disparity created between the imposition on states to legislate and enforce population control mechanism, progress made retrospectively over the last 50 years, that is, between the 1971 and 2021 Censuses, along with their current position.
Vaishnav and Hinston argue that it is necessary to crystallize the distinction between electors and constituents per elected representative while engaging in a discussion around revolving representational deficit; for instance, in 2019, the polar opposites of Uttar Pradesh and Tamil Nadu (because Tamil Nadu is overrepresented and Uttar Pradesh is underrepresented; refer to the table above) had identical electors – in fact, with Tamil Nadu having a higher number – while the population they represent is roughly 3 million and 1.8 million respectively.
The Cambridge Compromise has a two-stage ideation known as the ‘base+prop method’; in the first stage, a set number of seats are allocated uniformly across all states, post which the remainder of seats are distributed in reference to population sizes with rounding happening outwards, coupled with an automatic exclusion of the most and least populous states from this calculation by assigning them a predetermined minimum and maximum threshold.
Engaging with the best-case scenario in status quo, which is 1.8 million people per elected representative in Tamil Nadu, it must be noted that Canadian Parliamentarians represent roughly 97,000 constituents, while those from the United Kingdom represent roughly 72,000 constituents, which is to say even in the best possible case, with the apportionment and freezing of delimitation since 1971, an average Parliamentarian from Tamil Nadu would represent 16-18 times the constituents of these countries. Hypothetically, assuming we want to carry out the most utopian idea of having an elected member representing 0.5 million of the population in India, it would mean that at least 2,760 elected representatives would be required to form the Parliament in order to address this representational deficit.
It is structurally, practically and meaningfully impossible for elected representatives to be able to claim to be able to represent 1.8 million or more people within the Indian context unless there is an immediate injection of technological, digital, automation and logistical support between the elected and electors. This includes but is not limited to fundamental policy decisions that cater to lastmileservicedelivery such as: i) tagging and bifurcating specific types of grievances together based on priority basis, ii) setting up monitoring committees – district wise – to check whether existing redressal mechanisms are in action and status updates are being provided, through an open source and public facing platform in all regional languages, and iii) effectively integrating social media handles with digital electoral tools to allow for better information penetration and awareness. (The eSevai Centres in Tamil Nadu offer promise in this regard.)
The ‘Cambridge Compromise’ was devised to apportion seats within the European Union with the vision for it as a durable, transparent and impartial metric. It has a two-stage ideation known as the ‘base+prop method’; in the first stage, a set number of seats are allocated uniformly across all states, post which the remainder of seats are distributed in reference to population sizes with rounding happening outwards, coupled with an automatic exclusion of the most and least populous states from this calculation by assigning them a predetermined minimum and maximum threshold. However, even though with certain mathematical and contextual adjustments the formula could suit India’s needs, the larger question of population being the primary metric for limiting representation needs to be addressed.
The illusion of an intact federalist model that is able to self-sustain these considerations and override tangible considerations such as the widening North-South divide wherein three states in southern India – Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Kerala – have a combined Gross State Domestic Product equivalent to 13 states in north and eastern India, and the overall greater developmental indicators, political stability and governance strategies, would logically lead the delimitation conversation in the future to anaggressivedeadlock between greater political representation in the North versus significant economical contribution from the South, begging the question of whether an electorate which has significantly invested in its human resources and governance systems to benefit the country, could create and facilitate change through political representation. Conversely, as discussed earlier, poor governance mechanisms and lack of population control cannot be penalized through lack of political representation which is inherently violative of the one-person-one-vote principle, as it would only worsen the implementation gaps with limited functionality and resources.
In conclusion, there is an immediate need for policy and legislative forecasting as to what ought to be the most appropriate manner in which delimitation needs to be resumed, in light of the extensive structural changes over the past 50 years. The political will to delay the freeze has run its course of time, and it is on the electorate to lobby and preserve the constitutional sanctity and federal character of this country.