Elections and Democracy

Category : UPSC

 Elections and Democracy




Contents of the Chapter

  • Proportional Representation
  • How does PR work in Rajya Sabha elections
  • Total Votes polled
  • Why did India adopt the First system?
  • Universal franchise and right to contest
  • Independent-Election Commission
  • Special Majority



All citizens cannot take direct part in making every decision. Therefore, representatives are elected by the people. This is how elections become important. Whenever we think of India as a democracy, our mind invariably turns to the last elections. Elections have today become the most visible symbol of the democratic process. We often distinguish between direct and indirect democracy.


A direct democracy is one where the citizens directly participate in the day-to-day decision making and in the running of the government. The ancient city-states in Greece were considered examples of direct democracy.


Many would consider local governments, especially gram sabhas, to be closest examples of direct democracy. But this kind of direct democracy cannot be practiced when a decision has to be taken by lakhs and crores or people, That is why rule by the people usually means rule by people’s representatives.


In such an arrangement citizens choose their representatives who, in turn, are actively involved in governing and administering the country. The method followed to choose these representatives is referred to as an election. Thus, the citizens have a limited role in taking major decisions and in running the administration.


They are not very actively involved in making of the policies. Citizens are involved only indirectly, through their elected representatives. In this arrangement, where all major decisions are taken by elected representatives, the method by which people elect their representatives becomes very important.


Election system in India: To Understand it better, let us look one dramatic instance.


In the Lok Sabha elections of 1984, the Congress party came to power winning 415 of the 543 Lok Sabha seats - more than 80% of the seats. Such a victory was never achieved by any party in the Lok Sabha. What did this election show?


The Congress party won four-fifths of the seats. Does it mean that four out of five Indian voters voted for the Congress party? Actually not. Take a look at the enclosed table. The Congress party got 48% of the votes. This means that only 48% of those who voted, voted in favour of the candidates put up by the Congress party, but the party still managed to win more than 80% of the seats in the Lok Sabha. Lok at the performance of other parties. The BJP got 7.4 percent votes but less than one per cent seats. How did that happen? This happened because in our country we follow a special method of elections. Under this system:


  • The entire country is divided Into 54.3 constituencies;
  • Each constituency elects one representative; and
  • The candidate who secures the highest number of votes in that constituency is declared elected.


It is important to note that in this system whoever has more votes than all other candidates, is declared elected. The winning candidate need not secure a majority, of the votes. This method is called the first Past the Post (FPTP) system in the electoral race, the candidate who is ahead of others, who crosses the winning post first of all, is the winner. This method is also called the Plurality System. This is the method of election prescribed by the Constitution.


Example: The Congress party won greater share of seats than its share of votes because in many of the constituencies in which its candidates won, they secured less than 50% of the votes. If there are several candidates, the winning candidate often gets much less than 50% of the votes. The votes that go to all the losing candidates go ‘waste’, for those candidates or parties get no seat from those votes. Suppose a party gets only 25 per cent of the votes in every constituency, but everyone else gets even less votes. In that case, the party could win all the seats with only 25 per cent votes or even less.


Proportional Representation

In Israel once the votes are counted, each party is allotted the share of seats in the parliament in proportion to its share of votes. Each party fills its quota of seats by picking those many of its nominees from a preference list that has been declared before the elections. This system of elections is called the Proportional Representation (PR) system. In this system a party the same proportion of as its proportion of votes.


In the PR system there could, be two variations. In some countries, like Israel or the entire country is treated as one constituency and seats are allocated to each party according to its share of votes in the national election. The other method is when the country is divided into several multi- member constituencies as in Argentina and Portugal. Each party prepares a list of candidates for each constituency, depending on how many he to be elected from that constituency. In both these variations, voters exercise their preference for a party and not a candidate. The seats in a constituency are distributed on the basis of votes polled by a party. Thus, representatives from a constituency, would and do belong to different parties. In India, we have adopted PR system on a limited scale for indirect elections. The Constitution prescribes a third and complex variation of the PR system for the election of President, Vice President, and for the election to the Rajya Sabha and Vidhan Parishads.


How does PR work in Rajya Sabha Elections

A third variant of PR, the Single Transferable Vote System (STV) is followed for Rajya Sabha elections. Every State has a specific quota to seats in the Rajya Sabha. The members are elected by the respective State legislative assemblies. The voters are the MLAs in that State. Every voter is red to rank candidates according to her or his preference. To be declared the winner, a candidate must secure a minimum quota of votes, which is determined by a formula:


Total Votes polled

________________+1 Total number of candidates to be elected +1 For example if 4 Rajya Sabha members have to be elected by the 200 MLAs in Rajasthan, the winner would require (200/4+1=40+1) 41 votes. When the votes are counted it is done on the base of first preference votes secured by each candidate, of which the candidate has secured the first preference votes. If after the counting of all first preference votes. Required number of candidates fail to fulfil the quota, the candidate who secured the lowest votes of first preference is eliminated and his / her votes are transferred to those who are mentioned as second preference on those ballot papers. This process continues till the required number of candidates are declared elected.


Why did India adopt the First system?

They answer is not very difficult to guess. If you have carefully read the box explaining the Rajya Sabha elections, you would have noticed that it is a complicated system which may work in a small country, but would be difficult to work in a sub-continental country like India. The reason for the popularity and success of the FPTP system is its simplicity. The entire election system is extremely simple to understand even for common voters who may have no specialized knowledge about politics and elections. There is also a clear choice presented to the voters at the time of elections.


Voters have to simply endorse a candidate or a party while voting. Depending on the the nature of actual politics, voters may either give greater importance to the party or to the candidate or balanced the two. The FPTP system offers voters a choice not simply between parties but specific candidates. In other electoral systems, especially PR systems, voters are often asked to choose a party and the representatives are elected on the basis of party lists, As a result, there is no one representative who represents and is responsible for one locality. In constituency based system like the FPTP, the voters know who their own representative is and can hold him or her countable.


More importantly, the makers of our Constitution also felt that PR based election may not be suitable for giving a stable government in a parliamentary system. This system requires that the executive has majority in the legislature. You will notice that the PR system may not produce a clear majority because seats in the legislature would be divided on the basis of share of votes. The FPTP system generally gives the largest party or coalition some extra bonus seats, more than their share of votes would allow. Thus this system makes it possible for parliamentary government to function smoothly and effectively by facilitating the formation of a stable government. Finally, the FTPT system encourages voters from different social groups to come together to win an election in a locality. In a diverse country like India, a PR system would encourage each community to form its own nation-wide party. This may also have been at the back of the mind of our constitution makers.


The experience of the working of the Constitution has confirmed the expectation of the constitution makers. The FPTP system has proved to be simple and familiar to ordinary voters. It has helped larger parties to win clear majorities at the centre and the State level. The system has also discouraged political parties that get all their votes only from one caste or community. Normally, the working of the FPTP system results in a two-party system.


This means that there are two major competitors for power and power is often shared by these two parties alternately. It is difficult for new parties or the third party to enter the competition and share power. In this respect, the experience of FPTP in India is slightly different. After independence, though we adopted the FPTP system, there emerged a one party dominance and along with it. There existed many smaller parties. After 1989, India is witnessing the functioning of the multiparty coalitions. At the same time, gradually, in many States, a two party competition is emerging. But the distinguishing feature of India’s party system is that the rise of coalitions has made it possible for new and smaller parties to enter into electoral competition in spite of the FPTP system.





We have noticed that in the FPTP election system, the candidate who secures the highest votes in a particular constituency is declared elected. This often works to the disadvantage of the smaller social groups. This is even more significant in the Indian social context. We have had a history of caste based discri-mination. In such a social system, the FPTP electoral system can mean that the dominant social groups and castes can win everywhere and the oppressed social groups may continue to remain unrepresented. Our Constitution makers were aware of this difficulty and the need to provide a way to ensure fair and just representation to the oppressed social groups.


This issue was debated even before independence and the British government had introduced ‘separate electorates’. This system meant that for electing a representative from a particular community, only those voters would be eligible who belong to that community. In the constituent assembly, many members expressed a fear that this will not suit our purposes. Therefore, it was decided to adopt the system of reserved constituencies. In this system, all voters in a constituency are eligible to vote but the candidates must belong to only a particular community or social section for which the seat is reserved. There are certain social groups which may be spread across the Country. In a particular constituency, their numbers may not be sufficient to be able to influence a victory of a candidate. However, taken across the' country they are a significantly sizeable group. To ensure their proper representation; a system of reservation becomes necessary. The Constitution provides for reservation of seats in the Lok Sabha and State Legislative Assemblies for the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes. This provision was made initially for a period of 10 years and as a result of successive constitutional amendments, has been extended up to 2010. The Parliament can take a decision to further extend it, when the period of reservation expires. The number of seats reserved for both of these groups is in proportion to their share in the population of India. Today, of the 543 elected seats in the Lok Sabha, 79 are reserved for Scheduled Castes and 41 are reserved for Scheduled Tribes.


Who decides which constituency is to be reserved? On what basis is this decision taken? This decision is taken by an independent body called the Delimitation Commission. The Delimitation Commission is appointed by the President of India and works in collaboration with the Election Commission of India. It is appointed for the purpose of drawing up the boundaries of constituencies all over the country. A quota of constituencies to be reserved in each State is fixed depending on the proportion of SC or ST in that State. After drawing the boundaries, the Delimitation Commission looks at the composition of population in each constituency. Those constituencies that have the highest proportion of Scheduled Tribe population are reserved for ST. in the case of Scheduled Castes, the Delimitation Commission looks at two things. It picks constituencies that have higher proportion of Scheduled Caste population. But it also spreads these constituencies in different regions of the State. This is done because the Scheduled Caste population is generally spread evenly throughout the country. These reserved constituencies can be rotated each time the Delimitation exercise is undertaken.


The Constitution does not make similar reservation for other disadvantaged groups. Of late there has been a strong demand seeking reservation of seats in the Lok Sabha and State Assemblies for women. Given the fact that very few women are elected to representative bodies, the demand for reserving one-third seats for women is increasingly being articulated. Reservation of seats for women has been provided for in rural and urban local bodies. A similar provision for Lok Sabha and Vidhan Sabhas would require an amendment to the Constitution. Such an amendment has been proposed several times in the Parliament but has not yet been passed.



The true test of any election system is its ability to ensure a free and fair electoral process. If we want democracy to be translated into reality on the ground, it is important that the election system is impartial and transparent. The system of election must also allow the aspirations of the voter to find legitimate expression through the

electoral results.


Universal franchise and right to contest

Apart from laying down a method of elections, the Constitution answers two basic questions about elections: Who are the voters? Who can contest elections? In both these respects our Constitution follows the well established democratic practices.


You already know that democratic elections require that all adult citizens of the country must be eligible to vote in the elections. This is known as universal adult franchise. In many countries, citizens had to fight long battles with the rulers to get this right. In many countries, women could get this right very late and only after struggle. One of the important decisions of the framers of the Indian Constitution was to guarantee every adult citizen in India, the right to vote.


Till 1989, an adult Indian meant an Indian citizen above the age of 21. An amendment to the Constitution in 1989, reduced the eligibility age to 18. Adult franchise ensures that all citizens are able to participate in the process of selecting their representative. This is consistent with the principle of equality and non-discrimination. Many people thought and many think so today that giving the right to vote to everyone irrespective of educational qualification was not right. But our Constitution makers had a firm belief in the ability and worth of all adult citizens as equals in the matter of deciding what is good for the society, the country and for their own constituencies. What is true of the right to vote is also true of right to contest election. All citizens have the right to stand for election and become the representative of the people. However, there are different minimum age requirements for contesting elections. For example, in order to stand for Lok Sabha or Assembly election, a candidate must be at least 25 years old. There are some other restrictions also. For instance, there is a legal provision that a person who has undergone imprisonment for two or more years for some offence is disqualified from contesting elections. But there are no restrictions of income, education or class or gender on the right to contest elections. In this sense, our system of election is open to all citizens.


Article 324: (1) The superintendence, direction and control of the preparation of the electoral rolls for, and the conduct of, all elections to Parliament and to the Legislature of every State and of elections to the offices of President and Vice- President held under this Constitution shall be vested in a Commission (referred to in this Constitution as the Election Commission).


Independent-Election Commission

Several efforts have been made in India to ensure the free and fair election system and process. The most important among these is the creation of an independent Election Commission to ‘supervise and conduct’ elections. In many countries, there is an absence of an independent mechanism for conducting elections Article 324 of the Indian Constitution provides for an independent Election Commission for the ‘superintendence, direction and control of the electoral roll and the conduct of elections’ in India. These words in the Constitution are very important, for they give the Election Commission a decisive role in virtually everything to do with elections. The Supreme Court has agreed with this interpretation of the Constitution. To assist the Election Commission of India there is a Chief Electoral Officer in every state. The Election Commission is not responsible for the conduct of local body elections. The State Election Commissioners work independently of the Election Commission of India and each has its own sphere of operation.


The Election Commission of India can either be a single member or a multi-member body. Till 1989 the Election Commission was single member. Just before the 1989 general elections, two election Commissioners were appointed making the body multi-member. Soon after the elections, the Commission reverted to its single member status. In 1993, two Election Commissioners were once again appointed and the Commission became multi-member and has remained multi-member since ten. Initially there were many apprehensions about a multi-member Commission, There was a sharp difference of opinion between the then Chief Election Commissioner and the other Commissioners about who had how much power. The matter had to be settled by the Supreme Court. Now there is a general consensus that a multi-member Election Commission is more appropriate as power is shared and there is greater accountability.


The Chief Election Commissioner (CEC) presides over the Ejection Commission, but does not have more powers than the other Election Commissioners. The CEC and the two Election Commissioners have equal powers to take all decisions relating to elections as a collective body. They are appointed by the President of India on the advice of the Council of Ministers. It is therefore possible for a ruling party to appoint a partisan person to the Commission who might favour them in the elections. This fear has fed many to suggest that this procedure should be changed. Many persons have suggested that a different method should be followed that makes consultation with the leader of opposition and the Chief Justice of India necessary for the appointment of CEC and Election Commissioners.


The Constitution ensures the security of the tenure of the CEC and Election Commissioners, They are appointed for a six year term or continue till the age of 65, whichever is earlier The CEC can be removed before the expiry of the term, by the President if both Houses of Parliament make such a recommendation with a special majority. This is done to ensure that a ruling party cannot remove a CEC who refuses to favour it in elections. The Election Commissioners can be removed by the President of India. The Election Commission of India has a wide range of functions.


  • It supervises the preparation of up-to-date voters’ list. It makes every effort to ensure that the voters’ list is free of errors like nonexistence of names of registered voters or existence of names of those non-eligible or non-existent.


  • It also determines the timing of elections and prepares the election schedule. The election schedule includes the notification of elections, date from which nominations can be filed, last date for filing nominations, last date of scrutiny, last date of withdrawal, date of polling and date of counting and declaration of results.


  • During this entire process, the Election Commission has the power to take decisions to ensure a free and fair poll. It can postpone or cancel the election in the entire country or a specific State or constituency on the grounds that the atmosphere is vitiated and therefore, a free and fair election may not be possible. The Commission also implements a model. Code of conduct for parties and candidates, It can order a re-poll in a specific constituency. It can also order a recount of votes when it feels that the counting process has not been fully fair and just.


  • The Election Commission accords recognition to political parties and allots symbols to each of them.


Special Majority

Special majority means:


  • Two-thirds majority of those present and voting, and


  • Simple majority of the total membership of the House.


The Election Commission has very limited staff of its own. It conducts the elections with the help of the administrative machinery. However, once the election process has begun, the commission has control over the administration as far as election related work is concerned. During the election process, the administrative officers of the State and central governments are assigned election related duty and in this respect, the Election Commission has full control over them. The EC can transfer the officers, or stop their transfers; it can take action against them for failing to act in a non-partisan manner.


Over the years, the Election Commission of India has emerged as an independent authority which has asserted its powers to ensure fairness in the election process. It has acted in an impartial and unbiased manner in order to protect the sanctity of the electoral process.


The record of Election Commission also shows that every improvement in the functioning of institutions does not require legal or constitutional change. It is widely agreed that the Election Commission is more independent and assertive now than it was till twenty years ago. This is not because the powers and constitutional protection of the Election Commission have increased. The Election Commission has started using more effectively the powers it always had in the Constitution. In the past fifty five years, fourteen Lok Sabha elections have been held. Many more State assembly elections and bye elections have been conducted by the Election Commission. The EC has faced many difficult situations such as holding elections in militancy affected areas like Assam, Punjab or Jammu and Kashmir.


It has also faced the difficult situation of having to postpone the election process midway in 1991 when the ex-Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated during campaigning. In 2002, the Election Commission faced another critical situation when the Gujarat Assembly was dissolved and elections had to be conducted. But the Election Commission found that unprecedented violence in that State had made it impossible to hold free and fair elections immediately.



No system of election can ever be perfect. And in actual election process, there are bound to be many flaws and limitations. Any democratic society has to keep searching for mechanisms to make elections free and fair to the maximum. With the acceptance of adult suffrage, freedom to contest elections, and the establishment of an independent Election Commission, India has tried to make its election process free and fair. However, the experience of the last fifty five years has given rise to many suggestions for reforming our election system. The Election Commission, political parties, various independent groups, and many scholars have come up with proposals for electoral reform. Some of these suggestions are about changing the constitutional provisions discussed in this Chapter:


  • Our system of elections should be changed from the FPTP to some variant of the PR system. This would ensure that parties get seats, as far as possible, in proportion to the votes they get.


  • There should be a special provision to ensure that at least one third women are elected to the parliament and assemblies.


  • There should be stricter provisions to control the role of money in electoral politics. The elections expenses should be paid by the government out of a special fund.


  • Candidates with any criminal case should be barred from contesting elections, even if their appeal Is pending before a court.


  • There should be complete ban on the use of caste and religious appeals in the campaign.


  • There should be a law to regulate the functioning of political parties and to ensure that they function in a transparent and democratic manner.


  • These are but a few suggestions. There is no consensus about these suggestions. Even if there was a consensus, there are limits to what the laws and formal provisions can do. Free and fair elections can be held only if the Candidates, the parties and those involved in the election process agree to abide by the spirit of democratic competition.


Apart from legal reforms, there are two other ways of ensuring that elections reflect the expectations and democratic aspirations of the people. One is, of course, that people themselves have to be more vigilant, more actively Involved in political activities


But there are limits to the extent to which ordinary people can engage in politics on a regular basis. Therefore, it is necessary that various political institutions and voluntary organisations are developed and are active in functioning as watchdog for ensuring free and fair elections.

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