Thursday, 27 May 2010

A Tale of Two Elections

On 6 May 2010, the United Kingdom went to the polls. On the whole, the Conservatives got the most seats (306) after winning 36% of the total vote. Labour got 29% of the vote which gave them 258 seats. The Lib Dems got 23% of the total vote, but got only 57 seats under the First-Past-The-Post system. Naturally, one of the first demands the Lib Dems made when negotiating with potential coalition partners was that this system be replaced by one of Proportional Representation.

England, especially the southern heartlands, fell to the Tories. Scotland turned out largely for Labour and gave them 41 seats out of 58. The Scottish National Party did pretty badly and won only 6 seats. The Conservatives got just one seat. In Wales too, Labour ruled the roost with 26 seats out of 40 (a drop of 4 seats). Conservatives came second in Wales with 8 seats while the Lib Dems and Plaid Cymru got 3 seats each. These results caused Minette Marin, a very sensible journalist who writes for the London Times to call for Scotland to be cut loose, since the Tories will have an absolute majority in an English Parliament and it is unfair for English matters to be decided by a Parliament with MPs from Scotland and Wales which have their own legislative bodies.

A week before the elections, I had wondered if the UK would break up after the elections For the moment, the answer is No, but the possibility can’t be entirely ruled out. I mean, Tory supporters in England cannot ignore the fact that it is support for Labour in Scotland which prevents the Conservative Party from gaining an absolute majority in the British Parliament. However, the weakening of the EU in recent times will act as a dampener for those in England and Scotland who want their respective nations to part ways. As long as the EU is stable, a partition would be painless, but without the EU, separation will be painful. Further, the fact that the Scottish National Party came off worse than they did in the last election shows that separation from English is not particularly popular in Scotland. However, it must be noted that Scots don’t as a matter of principle use the Parliamentary elections to show their support for the SNP. That show of strength is reserved for elections to the Scottish Parliament.

Under the First-Past-The-Post system, a coalition government comprising of the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats has come to power in the UK. This coalition government has produced a document which sets out the agreement between the two coalition partners. The Lib Dems have given ground on many of their policies, notably immigration and tax cuts. However, they got the Conservatives to agree on a referendum to decide if the First-Past-The-Post system should be replaced by Alternative Voting.

I couldn’t help comparing the UK elections with the elections held in India almost exactly a year ago. The main difference in the conduct of elections is that India uses electronic voting machines which allow results to be produced in the jiffy. In the UK, the votes are manually counted. India has 417 million voters while the UK has a little less than 30 million. India claims that its voting machines are tamper proof and I believe that claim. It is tough to get access to a voting machine and even if you do, there is no software to tamper – votes are stored on micro chips. However, I did read a BBC report which said that a few US Scientists have managed to hack into a voting machine

This year, the UK had a high voter turnout and many polling stations were not equipped to handle that, as a result of which, many voters were turned away and could not vote. Of course, the number of people turned away was in the ‘hundreds’, a small number in my opinion. Ever since I came to the UK almost eight years ago, I have voted in elections though I am still an Indian national. This is because the UK allows all commonwealth citizens (and India is still in the commonwealth) to vote, even in the Parliamentary elections. This time, I had opted for the postal vote. This meant that postal ballots and stamped envelopes were delivered to me many days before the elections. I only had to mark an X against my chosen candidate, sign and post my ballot paper so that it reached its destination by 6 May.

I have never voted in India. This is not because I didn’t want to vote or am apathetic, but because, from the age of 18 till the time I left for the UK almost ten years later, I was a nomad shuttling between hostels and work places and towns where my parents lived. Electoral Rolls in India are a mess and it is no easy matter to get your name into one, unless you have lived in a particular place for a very long time. I suspect there are millions of nomadic Indians like me who have never voted because their names don’t figure in electoral rolls. On top of that, India doesn’t have the postal vote except for government employees engaged in election duty. As a result of this, not only are millions of Indians living outside India deprived of their right to vote, even Indians in India who are forced to travel on election day or be in a place other than where they are registered to vote, cannot vote. Of course, it is no easy matter to provide for postal votes for so many people, but I just couldn’t help noticing.

If you are a British national, you get to vote, wherever in the world you might be. Britons of Indian and Pakistani origin who live in the sub-continent, have postal ballots delivered to their homes by post. Every time elections are held in the UK, there are claims of postal vote fraud. This year there was a BBC report which said that in Mirpur (in Pakistan) which has a large number of British nationals of Pakistani origin, men went door to door collecting postal voting envelopes which they would or could then fill in the way they wanted. Despite this controversy and the administrative hurdles notwithstanding, I would like to see India implement the postal vote. Even if it can’t do that, it could set up a few (tamper proof) voting machines at each Indian embassy or consulate and allow Indian passport holders to vote. The votes would then have to be redirected to the respective constituencies, which will be a huge problem. Another problem would be that the voting machines used for NRIs would need to display practically every candidate in India. May be the Indian government could create a few NRI constituencies, with an MP each for NRIs in the Americas, Europe, the Middle-East and Australia.

India’s 2009 Parliamentary elections took place on 5 days, staggered over a period of one month, starting from 16 April 2009 and ending on 13 May 2009. This was because violence by terrorists and others and other disruptions was anticipated and the security forces could only be spread around by so much. The votes were counted on 16 May 2010. Thanks to the electronic voting machines, the counting process took only a few hours, though.

The Congress Party won 201 seats, the best ever performance by any party since 1991. However, it still didn’t have a majority in the lower house of Parliament which has a total strength of 545 members. The United Progressive Alliance of which the Congress is the main member won 262 seats and came to power without much ado. Unlike in the case of the UK, the coalition was already in place and the usual horse trading did not take place.

India has had many coalition governments in the past, formed after the election results were announced and I can’t remember any of them announcing joint policy statements with the same clarity as the one announced by the Conservative-Lib Dem coalition. Usually, the largest party’s policies are implemented, with support from the coalition partners on a case-by-case basis, which means, the support may be yanked away at any time.

The most interesting outcome of last year’s elections in India was that Dr. Manmohan Singh got to continue as Prime Minister, though he did not stand for elections. Actually, ever since Dr. Manmohan Singh was made India’s Finance Minister in 1991, he has not stood for elections, except in the 1999 Parliamentary elections when he stood for the South Delhi constituency and - lost. Now, I am a big admirer of Dr. Manmohan Singh, his integrity and his various reforms since 1991, but it is no easy matter to stomach the fact that the Indian Prime Minister does not have the confidence to face the electorate. Surely, the all powerful Congress Party can find him a safe enough seat to contest the elections?

The Indian Constitution does not require the Prime Minister to be a member of the Lok Sabha or the Lower House of Parliament, which is entirely composed of directly elected representatives. No, the Prime Minister may be a member of the Rajya Sabha or the Upper House, the Indian equivalent of the House of Lords. One can only imagine the consternation that would be caused in the UK if a Lifetime Peer from the House of Lords was sought to be made the Prime Minister.

According to this Government of India website, Dr. Manmohan Singh’s address is in the Kamrup district of Assam. I doubt if Dr. Manmohan Singh has ever been to Kamrup, let alone live there for any part of his life. Yet, he has been elected to the Rajya Sabha as a resident of this place.

Almost all members of the Rajya Sabha are elected by State Legislatures for a term of 6 years on a revolving basis (one-third resign every two years) and each state has a quota. Assam is a Congress stronghold and ever since India’s independence, the Congress Party has been in power in Assam except for brief interludes. Therefore, getting the legislators of the Assam State Assembly to elect Dr. Manmohan Singh to the Rajya Sabha as their nominee must be the easiest thing to do. And not a very ethical thing, since Dr. Manmohan Singh is not a resident of Assam, a requirement to be so elected. Of course, no one in India bats an eyelid regarding this. To be honest, even I am not too fussed since I’d rather have an unelected Dr. Manmohan Singh as the Indian Prime Minister rather than an elected goon. Jawed Naqvi has written an interesting article on this topic in the Dawn.


Madhavan said...

I think MMS contested the 1999 Lok Sabha elections from South Delhi and lost.

Winnowed said...

Madhavan, you are absolutely right. I missed that bit, but have added a line to my post to make amends. Thanks a lot for pointing this out.

ughsome said...

i did not know that there was no postal vote in india. i was under the impression there was! yes they do need to introduce it in that case.
having been in the same bucket- ie of coure, not having lived in the town i am registered to vote since i became an adult- and therefore never having voted there- i'm certainly no expert.