Imagining a better Parliament

The individual citizen is largely powerless in densely populated Democracies like India. We’ve seen repeatedly —  across many methods of calculations — that the probability of impact of any one person’s vote on the outcome is so small that it’s practically 0. The actual outcome of that experiment, an MP, then goes to Parliament to vote on laws representing the interests of these individual constituents. However, the interests of these constituents are subsumed by Party interests in the actual representation. This is true in most Parliamentary Democracies but it is taken to the extreme in India by the existing anti-defection laws. Thereby making a citizen’s already minuscule impact far worse. Is there a better way to do this?

The obvious low hanging fruit is to do away with the anti-defection law. It was enacted to prevent legislators who jumped parties to bring down or form governments motivated by outright bribery. An MP switching parties for personal gain is clearly not in the interests of the electorate; though a less destabilising but far more frequently occurring and therefore more impactful aspect is: MPs belonging to a given party have to vote the way in which the party decides on every single piece of legislation even if it’s not in the interests of the MP’s constituents. On the other hand, if no form of control existed for their voting, it’d become a place analogous to the American Senate and it’s impossible to run a government elected under the Parliamentary system if the government is not sure if any of its programs will pass. Or, if the government itself will survive.

One approach that comes to mind is: allow each elected MP a fixed number of votes that can go against that MP’s party vote. That way if an MP feels strongly enough about something or it matters enough to that MP’s constituents but isn’t in the larger interests of the Party, a conscience vote gets cast. The problem with this approach, however, will be that it could result in the exact sort of scenario discussed above: say a majority of MPs belonging to the ruling party decide to exercise their “no” vote on the Budget; all at once. To guard against this, the requirement could be that such voters will have to register with the speaker of the house a day prior to the vote and only 10% of any party can do this for a given vote on a first-come-first-served basis. While this seems reasonable as a system of voting, the downside is that the person indulging in it is likely to hurt one’s own career and therefore professional politicians wanting to climb the party ladder are unlikely to do it.

A less palatable choice is that for every X votes an MP has participated in and voted along with the party, the MP gets n secret ballots allotted. If an MP after putting in the yards of several votes feels strongly about a given issue, that MP will have the choice to secretly cast one or all n ballots against the party’s line. This after casting his/her original vote along with the party. Maybe the speaker’s office has a secret booth akin to a confession chamber for this. That’d mean no vote is final until the speaker declares it is. Such a system is vulnerable to chances of corruption on the part of the speaker. The ratio of X:n becomes crucial as well and one can’t think of a ready ratio to suggest. More significantly, the electorate has no way of knowing who vetoed the legislation and that may become highly susceptible to corruption as well.

Almost all the choices above — from secret ballot to complete party-line voting as it now happens — have one problem or another associated with them. Worse, all options that veer away from party positions tend to some form of obfuscation from the electorate that is antithetical to the idea of representative democracy. After all posturing and perception are as important or even more so than the actual vote; that’s made impossible by secret ballots.

A solution one is tempted to explore is the structure of the Parliament itself.  A new electoral system where 1/3rd of the Lok Sabha is elected every two years for a six year term seems like an interesting option. This will achieve many likeable aspects without us even trying. Top among them will be the elimination of the obsession with the Prime Minister’s chair, given no election will be about that exclusively. But most importantly, it’ll likely solve the problem of representative voting discussed above because it’ll be interest of the parties to be more responsive. Voting constraints on the MP under this system will still be along party lines. But because there is a geographically equally spread election due every two years, a natural pressure of the representing constituent interests builds up to a slightly higher order on the party. That is, assuming the natural variation in “serious issues” tend to be normally distributed across geographies over time. Something along the lines of David Runciman’s hypothesis.

The other benefit of such a system will be that it’d make elections more a process and less an event; one hopes demagoguery of the sort one has experienced in 2014 will not have an incentive under such a system.

3 thoughts on “Imagining a better Parliament

  1. Madhavan Gopal

    The rotating system you suggest is the one followed by the US senate, if im not mistaken.

    My question is how would this work in a multiparty westminister system, where the presence of the executive depends on whether it enjoys the confidence of the house. If govenments survive due to outside support, then there is a possibilty of having a new executive every 2 years. Im not saying it a bad thing, but in terms of policy implementation and accountabilty there seems to be an issue if a government is thrown out every 2 years.

    I think italy has had 3 cabinets in the last 3 years though.

    PS: following your blog for last couple of months. Quite Interesting

  2. Puram Post author

    True, the Americans do this. But they have an elected executive.

    The idea is if a Parliament consists of MPs who are elected thus, Political parties will be forced to compromise in their own interests. And the idea of cleavages for their own sake will be reduced. Italy is interesting but they don’t have the release of every 2 years, do they?

    And yes, this hopefully will be like Japan but less so in that the bureaucracy will be powerful. But Japan elects only once every 5 years?

  3. Madhavan

    On deeper thought, this seems like a good system to follow when we have a governance paradigm where Centre is responsibile only for foreign affairs and defence, and in all other fields they are involved only in suggesting policies,best practices, the implementation of which the states are fully responsible for.

    But at the end of the day all of this hinges on the presence of strong institutions and regulators, which hardly exist here. So unless we have a government which takes as its first priority institution building and transparency, all of these suggestions seem like a mirage.

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