The Karnataka elections went down to the wire. Invited by the governor to form the government, Bharatiya Janata Party Chief Minister BS Yeddyurappa resigned on Saturday after only two days in office. The disaster shone a spotlight on the role of the governor for inviting the BJP – which did not have a majority – while ignoring the Congress-Janata Dal (Secular) alliance, which did.

Yet, the role of the governor is not the only one that is odd in this saga. The BJP is the largest party in the Assembly, by far, with 104 seats. The Congress is a distant second with 78 seats. Yet, more Kannadigas voted for the Congress than for the BJP. The Congress got 38% of the vote share while the BJP got 36.2%. Despite this, with only 36.2% of the vote, the saffron party garnered 47% of the seats in the House.

If democracy is about the rule of the people, how is the Congress, with more votes, actually behind the BJP in the Assembly. And what – if anything – can fix this anomaly?

What causes this mismatch between votes and seats?

India follows the first-past-the-post system of voting. In this system, a candidate is deemed to have won a seat if they get the largest number of votes. This, though, does not mean that the candidate has won the majority of the votes cast or, for that matter, even a significant number of votes cast.

The first-past-the-post system is designed as a winner-takes-all system, given that the winner of the seat gets to represent all the voters in the constituency, even the ones that did not vote for them. This is what results in the mismatch between votes and seats. Assuming the winner of a seat got 30% of the votes in the constituency, 70% of the voters are unrepresented in the legislature as they voted for candidates who will have no role in the government.

Proportional representation: An alternative

One popular solution to break out of this mess is the system of proportional representation.

The idea is simple: Allocate seats roughly in proportion to the votes bagged by parties. There are two popular ways to do this:

  • Party list system: Voters vote for a party rather than a candidate in a constituency. In the legislature, parties are awarded seats in proportion to their votes.
  • Alternative voting system: Here voters, rather than simply voting for one candidate, rank the candidates in order of preference. If any one candidate gets more than 50% of the votes, they are elected. But if that does not happen, the candidate placed last is eliminated. If a voter has indicated that that candidate is their first preference, their vote is then transferred to their second-preference candidate. This process continues till one candidate has more than 50% of the votes.

The term might seem unfamiliar, but India is not a stranger to proportional representation. That is how members of the Rajya Sabha are elected by the country’s MLAs. In fact, the election of the President of India is also via proportional representation. Both elections use the alternative voting system.

If first-past-the-post is so terrible, why doesn’t everyone shift?

Quite a few countries have. The first-past-the-post system was made for a time before mass parties and national politics. As Western democracies modernised and centralised, the first half of the 20th century saw most of them shift to proportional representation. Around 80% of democracies now use proportional representation to elect legislators.

However, the world’s two largest democracies – India and the United States – are still sticking to the first-past-the-post system. So is the United Kingdom, arguably the most influential democracy in the modern world, having transferred its system of government to the majority of its colonies.

So, how do the two systems compare?

Simplicity: First-past-the-post wins this hands down. This system has been in use for some time and is easy to understand. Alternative voting, for example, is seen to be too complex for the common Indian voter even as MLAs use it in the Rajya Sabha elections.

Local representation: First-past-the-post allows politicians to represent local areas – something that the party list system of proportional representation does not facilitate. This advantage, though, has been weakened in India with the anti-defection law, where legislators vote not as per the needs of their constituency but on the orders of their party high command.

Wasted votes: As in Karnataka, the first-past-the-post system wastes votes. Proportional Representation ensures each vote is accounted for and finds a voice in the legislature.

Instability versus diversity: One of the most famous laws in political science, Duverger’s law, holds that the first-past-the-post system tends to move a country towards a two-party system while proportional representation allows for a multi-party polity. Given that votes for the losing candidates are wasted in the first-past-the-post system, voters are not keen to vote for a candidate who has little chance of winning, even if they might like them. This leads to either competition between two parties or two coalitions and the building up of strong parties at the state and/or national level. This, of course, allows for stability. Throughout his tenure, India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, got less than 50% of the votes, but the first-past-the-post system managed to convert that into comfortable majorities, allowing a government that was in no way in danger of falling or even looking shaky. In West Bengal, the current Trinamool Congress government has 72% of the seats – leading to a government that cannot fall – on only 45% of the votes. And, of course, the BJP, in 2014, crossed the Lok Sabha’s majority, with 282 seats, with only 31% of the votes.

Which of these systems of voting is better depends on one’s point of view. People who like stability and order would tend towards the first-past-the-post system, which allows for vote shares to be magnified, reducing the chance of coalition governments. Proportional Representation, however, will almost always lead to coalition governments but, of course, it will truly represent the political diversity of the country.

Is India thinking of changing its system of voting?

In April 2017, a Parliamentary Standing Committee headed by Anand Sharma, a Congress Rajya Sabha MP, began a study of whether the first-past-the-post system is really suited to Indian conditions. This was probably the first time any organ of the Indian state has discussed the matter after it was settled in the Constituent Assembly in 1950.

However, chances of any change happening are small given that it would have to be initiated by the very people who are in power due to the first-past-the-post system. After all, the losers of this system are not represented in the structures of power and can do little.

However, even parties in power have a stake in making vote shares and seats converge given that too wide a gap delegitimises the system as a whole.