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Our elected representatives don’t really represent us

April 3, 2009

At times we curse democracy because democracy necessarily means that the majority chooses the elected representatives, which in turn means that minority interests may not represented. But in India majority interests may not be represented either. It is not just the low voter turnout that ensures this, but also the splitting of votes amongst multiple candidates which reduces the winner’s vote share. An article in the DNA was a stark reminder of the fact that our so-called elected representatives are not really our representatives.

Take a look at these two tables from a government of India site. The first table details the actual percentage of votes that winners received and it’s startling to know that only six winners got over 70% of the votes. The majority of the winners received less than 50% of the votes, and over a hundred winners polled below 40% of the votes.

But wait. That was just about those who actually voted. The table below takes into account the whole constituency, which means all eligible voters, including those who did not vote. The picture then becomes grimmer. Not a single winner has the mandate of over 70% of the people although 2 winners (tried to get these names online but could not) have the mandate of over 60% of the people. And as you can see, most “winners” lack the mandate of the majority of the people.  What is worrying is that even if a candidate represents just 10% of all eligible voters in a constituency, he can still get elected to parliament! Why complain then if criminals and dishonest people get elected? And why blame those poor souls who go out there and cast their vote? As it says in the same DNA article, in a three or four sided contest particularly, “more votes are cast against the winning candidate than for them.”

Different states have differing trends. Only Delhi, Haryana and the northeastern states of Mizoram, Meghalaya, Nagaland, Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh are places from where each and every elected MP got over 50% of the vote share. Tamil Nadu comes a close second with over 85% (34 of 39) of the winners getting over 50% of the votes polled. Andhra Pradesh doesn’t fare too badly as about 69% of the winners (29 out of 42) won by over 50% of the votes cast. More than half of the winners from West Bengal, Rajasthan and Orissa polled over 50% of the votes. Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh had a significant number of winners who polled over 50% of votes. However, Uttar Pradesh and Bihar don’t do too well here. Only about 25% of Bihar’s winners (11 out of 40) got over 50% votes but only 11% of UP’s winners (9 seats out of 80) polled over 50% of the votes. This means that only 9 MP’s in Uttar Pradesh truely represent the majority of the people in their constituency!

One cannot always avoid multiple candidates standing for election due to various “groups” who want their own candidate, but voter turnout in India has been disappointing. In any case as long as parties put up uninspiring candidates, voters are not about to be lured out of their beds on the voting holiday.

It’s not just about criminals and inept people. It’s also about those  few honest people who refuse to retire. India today  is young and the young don’t want to vote for the old. Well, certainly not for those over the age of 70. The table below gives the average age of Lok Sabha members over the years.

However it might be of interest to some that the average age of the American Congress is 57, higher than ours. In fact Obama will be working with the nation’s oldest Congress ever. The oldest member of the House is Ralph Hall, who is over 85 years old! The average age of the UK parliament is 50.6. UK’s oldest MP is Ian Paisley, MP for North Antrim, who is over 80 years old.

But then the United States population is much older than India’s, with over half of Americans over the age of 40 and in the UK, the majority of the population is over 35. On the other hand more than half of India’s population is under the age of 25 and even by 2020, “the average age of an Indian will be 29 years, compared to 37 for China and 48 for Japan.”

Some political parties have got wise and want to field younger and fitter candidates. Unfortunately the candidates in question may not always agree! They defy their parties even if they are 79 years old and unfit physically, as in the case of George Fernandes.

Related Reading: Is voting for a political party better than voting for the candidate?
The middle-class in India is not voting!
Don’t want to vote? Then register your no-vote!

46 Comments leave one →
  1. April 3, 2009 6:33 pm

    The average age chart is quite interesting. The average age is increasing. It could be because its the same politician who is getting into parliament year after year. 🙂
    Well I guess the trend might change in future as we are now seeing many young politicians on the run.

    Yes, the future but I wonder about this year Xylene. The power games have already started and I am not sure that there will be that many new faces. – Nita

  2. psripada101 permalink
    April 3, 2009 6:50 pm

    Great stuff.How many hours do you slog to write an article? Keep going.

    Thanks. This one has been stewing in my brain for a while so it didn’t take that long! – Nita.

  3. April 3, 2009 6:55 pm

    Wonderful post Nita!

    The lok sabha average age is very sad! I do not know what is the motivation for them to run a country which they do not seem to understand anymore?

    Aathira, I think the political parties are out of sync with the new young changing India. They should first understand their electorate, and then put up suitable candidates! – Nita.

  4. April 3, 2009 7:41 pm

    What can you do with 70+ who refuse to retire?Their personal interests are not allowing them to say good-bye.It is no longer a case of majority forming the Govt.Instead it is all about numbers…I have the numbers,join me to share the booty is the key word.For the 14 th Lok Sabha,Congress and BJP ,put together did not have simple majority of 272.So much for independent democracy.

    These 70+ people are like kings who think that they are running a fiefdom! – Nita.

  5. Smitha permalink
    April 3, 2009 7:49 pm

    That was extremely interesting.. especially the fact that only 6 MPs have got over 50% of the vote share… I guess things can change only once people start voting and political parties realise that the people really want to be a part of the electoral process. As for age, though, the argument is that despite somebody’s age, if they are fit and able to perform – why not, I would think that it would be nice to have an upper limit..

  6. April 3, 2009 7:52 pm

    Good post, Nita. In a multi-party democratic system, Instant Runoff Voting (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Instant-runoff_voting) is one way to ensure that the winner represents the majority of population, though this system has its critics too. Different kinds of voting systems will have trade-offs, and I’d guess that all are susceptible, to some degree or another, to some manipulation. And I have no idea what kind of effort it’ll take to change the electoral system to implement this.

    Yeah, democracy is not perfect, but it’s better than the previous systems of governance the world has seen.🙂

  7. Vinod permalink
    April 3, 2009 8:18 pm

    In my first of year of law, we had a subject called ‘public law’. One of the chapters in there was ‘electoral systems’. The thing about democracy is that the electoral system lies at the heart of its implementation and there are many ways of implementing it. Different electoral systems have different trade offs. Some of them give good representative candidates but are too complex to understand and expensive. Some of them are easy to understand and cheap to implement but are prone to give non-representative leaders. I recommend this –

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Voting_system

  8. April 3, 2009 8:19 pm

    Nita, I am sorry. I dont agree with your conclusions here at all.

    You title itself, “Our elected representatives do not … “,

    Who is our and us ? The thing is the middle class does not participate in the process and even if it did, it would not have an effect on the electoral component of our democracy. Although it can have a substantial effect on the governance aspect.

    I also dont see any reason why ensuring that the winner gets more than 50 % of the vote will encourage democracy. In fact, it might discourage political pluralism. There is a reason why the electorate is so fractured in UP and Bihar, there was a time when the Congress used to get more than 50 % of the vote almost everywhere, but did they represent the interests of the majority poor and oppressed.

    You said, “But wait. That was just about those who actually voted.”

    So why exactly should we care about the interests of those who didnt bother to vote ? I dont see the relevance of it all. So if someone polled more than 50 % of the voters but not 50 % of the electorate, would you say he/she does not represent the people ?

    You said, “India today is young and the young don’t want to vote for the old.”

    Is this a meritocratic way of judging politicians ? What makes younger candidates instantly more qualified than older ones ? I also doubt this is actually true, it seems to me to be one more middle class myth perpetuated endlessly by a pandering media.

    To finish off my rant, I would like to quote the following passage from a post on The South Asian Idea,

    “Soon after, Pakistan held elections, and I was glued to the television as results trickled in through the night. The first time Benazir Bhutto—so young, so beautiful, so full of promise—appeared on the screen, I wept.”

    The basis for the author’s hope was the fact that Benazir Bhutto was ‘so young, so beautiful, so full of promise.’ There was little anxiety that Benazir Bhutto had no training for the job, no prior experience in governance, and no demonstrated competence in managing a complex enterprise.

    Are you surprised at the sentence that follows?

    “But my euphoria was short–lived.”

    http://thesouthasianidea.wordpress.com/2009/03/08/governance-in-pakistan-–-2/

    • Vinod permalink
      April 3, 2009 8:24 pm

      Vikram, good post. TheSouthAsianIdea blog is a great blog, no doubt. I’ve time and again noticed some very good voices from Pakistan.

    • April 3, 2009 9:21 pm

      Vikram, I think there are a few things you misunderstood. This is a blog about India and by us if I meant the middle class I would be an idiot wouldn’t I! On this blog there are articles on all kinds of Indians and by our I meant all of us Indians, the rich, the poor and the middleclass, the tribals, all castes, everybody. I thought this was obvious.
      Secondly I have never said exactly that getting more than 50% of the vote ensures democracy as such.🙂 The way you put it, it sounds weird to me. I have implied that it is a great thing to have this vote share and yes that is my opinion and I feel it would be more democratic.
      And why we should care you say. Well, now that is a matter of opinion. I do care, and I suggest at the end of the article is that onus to put up good candidates is also on the party. Right now there are all sorts of candidates being put up, seats are being sold etc.
      Also you have completely misunderstood my sentence in which I said:

      India today is young and the young don’t want to vote for the old.

      Why are you assuming that I have made a value judgment?🙂 I have stated something which I think is true. If you think it is not true, you are welcome to disagree. Sure, I do not have a link to prove that most young people want younger politicians so if you disagree I will have nothing to say!

    • Naveen permalink
      April 3, 2009 9:59 pm

      Yes Vikram, you may be right about age. We have not yet seen Indian prime ministers/ politicians with incontinenece, hearing loss, cognitive impairment and the host of other geriatric conditions.

      http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,501020617-260747,00.html

  9. April 3, 2009 9:29 pm

    Good point made vikram, especially the Benazir bhutto part. Nita, let us accept this – most of us vote for parties and stars. We just don’t look at what kind of experience they might have had and how that might help the administration process! Most of us don’t even have the name of a candidate who is standing for a particular party! Forget about collecting his credentials! An irresponsible bunch of people definitely deserve only irresponsible leaders.

    Destination Infinity

    • April 3, 2009 9:33 pm

      DI, hmm, maybe but I think age matters to people. Certainly it does to those who sit at home and don’t vote! The point I was making is that the young would come out in greater numbers if the candidates were not just honest without criminal backgrounds but also younger. I have mentioned all that in sentences followign each other. That was my point and I thought it had been clear. I guess somewhere I miscommunicated if both Vikram and you have misunderstood.

      • April 4, 2009 5:03 am

        I always wondered how people find out easily that I have never voted🙂 !! Anyways I would have voted for Vajpayee (Back in ’96) with equal zest that I would have voted for Obama (Had I been in US, that is!). Age does not matter. If the guy has stuff, he has my vote – if at all I vote!

        Destination Infinity

  10. April 3, 2009 9:41 pm

    Nita, excellent, excellent, excellent post!

    I’m thrilled and amazed at how you could mine such insightful information from publicly available data…too good.

    That our parliament is on average younger than the US Congress and the UK Parliament is surprisingly an eye-opener. Isn’t it true that the younger parliamentarians are anyway overshadowed by the heavy-weights when it comes to policy-making decisions?

  11. April 3, 2009 9:58 pm

    Smitha, I agree that finally it’s the ability which counts but then then in a merit oriented system, this works. In India tickets are not given to people solely because of that. There is a lot of dirty things going on in ticket allocation. and that’s a very good point you made about political parties realising that if they want to win they need to feel the pulse of the people! They will do it if more people come out to vote…but then it’s all a vicious cycle!

    Vinod, Amit, thanks for the links. Electoral systems seem to be an interesting subject. I think India is unique in a sense, and we need our own unique system and we need to experiment. We need something that will accomodate all the diversity and still get candidates who represent the maximum number of people. But changing anything in India is a herculean task! There will be a great hue and cry even if people try to experiment.

    Mahendra, thanks. Yes, that’s interesting isn’t it! I too was a little surprised. But then their system is far more merit oriented than ours I think when it comes to those politicians who go up and stay there.

    • April 4, 2009 12:45 am

      Nita, possibility for corrections and making changes is in-built in the democratic system of governance. Yes, it does take a lot of effort to bring about that change from status quo, and even in the US it’s not easy. Though taking a small step at the city or municipal level is how a change starts and it’s easier to implement.

    • April 9, 2009 8:34 pm

      Nita

      I don’t think British or American democracies are any more merit driven than India’s, otherwise these nations would not be in the deep shit they are in right now. In fact India’s functioning democracy, multipartite, diverse and pluralist as it is, may be slow and plodding but it does lead to far more sustainable outcomes. There is the inevitable hold of interests everywhere but negotiating them is indeed what politics is about

      It would be, as an essential aside, interesting to ask what people really understand by ‘politics’ and governance and how they understand their own contributions to shaping the polity in their countries.

      In a democracy people get the governments they deserve so if people want change, they have to get out and vote for it, as well as participate in making that change happen by making tough choices every single day, rather than settle for chalta-hai that seems to be the default option for many:-/ That choice is to be made every day as much in the UK/ US as in India.

      PS: The oldest and perhaps the longest serving (he first was elected in 1948 I think) elected representative in the US was Strom Thurmond who reached the age of 100 while in office🙂

      Age has its benefits especially in politics. Frankly I would much rather trust a Manmohan Singh or P Chidambaram than the ullus called Rahul and Varun Gandhi, none of whom has anything more going for their credibility than their surnames!

      • April 9, 2009 8:40 pm

        Shefaly, yes I agree that India’s democracy is thriving and it is the voters who are to blame, if they don’t vote. But if one simply leaves this judgment aside, then it is true that the elected representatives do not represent the people. Yes, the people may deserve this situation! However I have hope that this is changing as I wrote in one of my posts. I think that urban India is going to wake up and I think we are going to see a good turnout in this election. People who have not voted before are going to come out and vote in large numbers. Maybe the reason is the terrorist attacks or maybe something else, but I feel it. Lets see. About age, ofcourse I agree.

        • April 10, 2009 2:06 am

          Nita

          I think there are two different aspects to this ‘representation’ business.

          One is if the elected rep actually has the obligation to represent the interests of even those who did not vote for her/ him. To that, the answer is that the rep is oblighed to and it is expected that she/ he will do so. Constituents who are actively engaged can keep such a rep on her/ his toes and ensure that the representation is duly delivered.

          The second bit is whose interest the rep actually represents. In this ‘cut’ so to speak, one must examine the parties who have nothing to do with the rep as voters, but whose interests may be being championed due to other reasons such as campaign financing. That is an altogether trickier business and may occasionally clash with a rep’s constituency’s interests although it would have to be a very foolish rep who does something totally harmful to his/ her constituency.

          Either way, a vigilant citizenry is needed so that a functioning democracy can have checks and balances too!🙂

          Thanks.

      • Vivek Khadpekar permalink
        April 10, 2009 12:17 am

        Shefaly,

        “I don’t think British or American democracies are any more merit driven than India’s, otherwise these nations would not be in the deep shit they are in right now. In fact India’s functioning democracy, multipartite, diverse and pluralist as it is, may be slow and plodding but it does lead to far more sustainable outcomes.”

        For once, I find myself in wholehearted agreement with you. My only nagging worry is that, with our tendency to uncritically emulate those countries, we too seem to be headed for the same kind of trap. That use of a plumbing-related term is not unintentional.🙂

        • April 10, 2009 1:56 am

          Vivek:

          I note the sharp use of “for once” and I raise you a split infinitive😉 (‘to uncritically emulate’).

          While you agree with the broad point I make, I disagree with you that India emulates these democracies uncritically (the differences themselves may be unintentional but they do exist and are meaningful). If that had indeed been the case, things in India would have been quite different – not all in undesirable ways. It would be quite a long argument so I may write about it sometime if I can find the time.

          • Vivek Khadpekar permalink
            April 10, 2009 9:03 am

            Shefaly:

            I thought the whole issue of split infinitives had been debated ad infinitum, ad nauseam and that the late WC (no reference to plumbing this time) had driven the final nail into its coffin.

            About India emulating these democracies uncritically, I did not mean to allude to them qua democracies as much as the vehicles of the insidious politico-economic régimes that they have evolved in the guise of being democracies, which we seem keen to emulate. Maybe I should have put that bit in a new paragraph, but then the single sentence preceding it was not dramatic enough (other than its placing on record my agreement with you) to warrant assigning it the status of a paragraph).🙂

  12. April 3, 2009 10:46 pm

    The two national parties, Congress and BJP combined got only 49% of the votes polled in 2004. That sort of tells us how representative the polls are these days. But with Anti Defection Act in place, even if the majority do get their verdict through, the member of legislature has to toe the party line or take part in large scale revolt if s/he chooses not to. For all practical purposes, s/he becomes a representative of their political party and not their constituency, as and when they enter the Parliament.

  13. April 3, 2009 10:55 pm

    that point about the age..its simple,I don’t want to get into politics,where as a fellow who dreams of riches and is not capable of anything thinks of bribes…end of the I am not there,he has no skill so he has to rise through the ranks…

    (sorry to sound so crude,I know that people such as Rahul exist but then they are few and far between)..

    • April 4, 2009 4:56 am

      Like any other field, rising in politics is not as easy as capable people not being there….

      Destination Infinity

  14. April 3, 2009 11:22 pm

    I think a major problem we have is the enormous number of political parties and no such “leader” who can win everyone’s heart and hence their vote irrespective of age, caste , status and religion. Thus we are unable to get a clear majority since so many years and have to go for coalition which the people never wanted and defeats the whole purpose of election by majority. There should be a restriction on the number of parties.

  15. April 4, 2009 4:50 am

    Hi Nita,

    As I was growing up, I always thought that the the government should be decided on the basis of % votes and not solely by number of winners in constituency.

    I was surprised then to hear that in Canada, they have proposed a formula based on which the representatives will be a mix of (1) Absolute majority in the constituency and (2) Total % of votes polled. Ofcourse, its politics and I don’t know if the system will be implemented ever. Russia has a weird system where they have something like (2) but most other countries in the world use (1).

    Using only (1) or only (2) has many errors. Consider smaller parties who might win 0 seats in the assembly, but maybe gather 5% of popular votes. As a democracy, we are obliged to hear them. Currently we don’t and this is another interpretation from the table you presented.

    Priyank, I think one has to keep experimenting as one size cannot suit all. I agree that just one system may not work. – Nita.

  16. hitchwriter permalink
    April 4, 2009 5:21 am

    Interesting statistics, honestly wasnt aware of this….

    However I am very optimistic that this elections we will see a staggering increase in the number of voters… compared to the last few years….

    I am sure the increase in the number of voters will than lead to an increased emphasis on the performance of those elected… !!

  17. psripada101 permalink
    April 4, 2009 9:50 am

    Its about time for you to contest in the elections, rather than merely writing about them.Get real.Just do it.

    • April 4, 2009 11:10 am

      psripada, sweet of you to think that I have a chance of winning. In reality I don’t! In real life I am too outspoken and direct to ever have even a whiff of a chance of winning! I am a writer and will always remain one. Sensitive, imaginative, direct and and quite shy of the limelight. I am the kind of person who prefers to be in the background. My ambition is to have my novel published, not join politics at which I will be a total failure.

      • April 9, 2009 8:38 pm

        Nita

        It will be worth watching what happens to Shashi Tharoor, Mallika Sarabhai and Meera Sanyal in these elections. Politics essentially is about negotiations and individuals can make a difference only so long as they can convince the majority to bat for them (Obama is a case in point). Then comes the tough task of proving if one is all mouth and no trousers..

        • April 9, 2009 9:18 pm

          Shashi Tharoor may be able to do something, since he is joined mainstream politics, but for the independents it will be difficulty without shaking the hands of the political parties, the same they’ve rejected by being independent. Air Deccan’s Capt. Gopinath is also there in the list of independent wannabes from the industry.

  18. openlight permalink
    April 4, 2009 1:19 pm

    Some more detail insights were needed to conclude the stats given out.

    In India, parties put up candidates as per dominant community (on basis of religion (especially Muslim), caste) of the constituency and not as per credentials of the candidate. Further, India also has even constituencies reserved for SC/ST, hence an ideal stat would had been %of religion / caste voters polled and % received by candidate.

    But leaving aside the idealistic stance, I personally believe that irrespective of %, now public at large have a change in perception especially after Mumbai incident, which has changed the political responsiveness though how low the spark may be but has started an involvement of youth, scrutiny of candidates and their achievements in past.

  19. April 4, 2009 6:36 pm

    It would seem that the vote share is dependent on both the voting percentage and the number of votes a candidate receives. While I agree that the low voting percentage is a problematic factor, there is another aspect to be considered as well.

    Most of the states where winning candidates receive more than 50% of the votes have a two party/front system. Thus the prevalence of that system is in effect an indicator of the reduction in the number of voices contesting the polls.

    Whether that is necessarily a better thing is truly debatable as I belong to the camp which believes that we need more voices representing us on the election front.

  20. April 4, 2009 10:40 pm

    I am waiting to turn 18 to be eligible for voting.
    its time when we all realize that we need to exercise our right in this “dance of democracy” than allowing some silly action-less politicians to have the control over our country.
    well its like “vote ya vaat”
    in between, sorry nita for irregular commenting on your blog

  21. April 5, 2009 2:02 am

    This is great and excellent!! Kudos! Great post…

  22. April 5, 2009 7:28 pm

    this is an eye opener. In school, I remember our teacher giving us an example where there are three candidates standing in election. A gets 40% votes, B gets 30% votes and C gets 30% votes. A wins but there are actually 60% people who did not want him to win. And that is how our system works!

  23. Conrad Barwa permalink
    April 6, 2009 3:22 am

    Actually under FPTP systems it is rare for candidates to get more than 50%; Maggie Thatcher at the height of her powers never got more than 40% of votes for the Tories in the UK. USually 30%-45% is enough for a candidate to win. You will never get more than 50% of the total electorate backing a candidate – this is exceptional given that participation rates will rarely exceed 60%-70% of the electorate in vibrant democracies (there are some exceptions but they happen like 2-3 times a century under conditions of great stress).

    A better reflection for us might have been given if we had a PR system rather than a FPTP one; it would probably reflect the social diversity of our society better as well but would run counter to elite interests which is why it was eschewed. FPTP systems based on geographic constituenices evolved froma system where only certain groups of land-owning/tax paying classes had the vote whole the majority was disenfranchised; the vote was extended onyl gradually in a controlled manner. Even under modern conditions it tends to favour rural constituencies over urban ones and middle class ones over working class ones; so has political implications. It has advantages too but they relate to governance.

    On the age of candidates, the problem in our society is that we don’t have enough circulation of elites – people just don’t want to retire whether it is from govt jobs or politics. Partly this is to do with the worship of the kursi – nobody respects anybody out of power, partly this is do with the patronage functions of democracy, too much of the attraction of elected office has to do with doling out goodies and partly this is down to weak parties – lack on inner party democracy and strength means that only elected positions carry importance. It is also a result of personality driven politics; we see the same faces for 20-30 years at least if not longer, because people build up coteries and networks and try to have a messiah-relationship with the masses. When they are finally replaced it is usually by a handpicked crony or a family member. Most of the young MPs come either from connected business families or political dynasties – there are few genuinely young independent fresh leaders as such.

  24. April 6, 2009 11:37 pm

    I didn’t realize this was the case in India. Thanks for enlightening me to this. Thanks for the well-written article!

    Peace,

    Molly

  25. April 7, 2009 1:03 pm

    really nice post..will I guess age matters in our country , but it is just the intial filter after that, your views,idealogy, work culture etc .etc. comes along

  26. April 7, 2009 4:34 pm

    Great article! I have recently become interested in political systems where there are more than just two major parties — as is the case in America. Your article comes at just the right time for me!

  27. April 8, 2009 1:04 am

    fantastic work Dear.

  28. rags permalink
    April 9, 2009 10:12 pm

    Nice article! But I really don’t feel there is a problem if older people represent us. Politics needs people with experience and patience. Frankly, in my opinion newspapers like the TOI are running a ridiculous campaign against older candidates standing for elections.

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