Revisited: Number of seats in the Lok Sabha

Reading time: 6-8 minutes.

During his address at the Second Annual Atal Bihari Vajpayee Memorial Lecture organised by the India Foundation in New Delhi, former President Pranab Mukherjee cherished the role of Vajpayee in consensus-seeking. He hailed Vajpayee as the leader who tried to take the populace along.

Pointing to the beauty of a parliamentary democracy, Mukherjee cited that the numerical majority gives the stability to a government, but majority of voters have never voted for only one party for all of their lives. Thus, the lack of popular majority forbids you from a majoritarian government.

In order to increase the efficiency of the Parliament, he also pointed out, inter alia, that there is a need to increase the number of Lok Sabha seats. He explained that the size of the electorate has become disproportionately large per elected representative.

It begs the question of whether the Members of the Parliament (MP) can realistically stay in touch with the people that they represent, to the foreground. He suggested that the number of seats in Lok Sabha should be raised to at least 1000 from the current 543.

Grounds on which no. of seats is decided:

The number of seats in Lok Sabha (as well as Rajya Sabha) is determined on the basis of the following factors: 

  1. Constitutional Mandate: The principle of proportional representation is embraced by the Indian Constitution under Art 81. It places an upper cap of 552 on the number of seats in Lok Sabha, but it is currently fixed at 543 by Parliament through law making powers vested in it. 
  2. Population: Representation of People’s Act, 1951 clarifies that the overall number of seats in Lok Sabha is determined on the basis of population of the country as per the official 10-yearly census. The number of seats were gradually increased from 489 in the first election in 1951 to the current 543 in 1971. After that, the 42nd Constitutional Amendment Act barred an increase in the number of Lok Sabha seats, which was extended to stay in effect till 2026 by the 84th Amendment Act.
  3. Proportional Representation: To ensure proportional representation, the Delimitation Act allows the Parliament to carry on delimitation of constituencies to equalise the MP:Voter ratio across all constituencies within each state. Last such activity was conducted on the basis of 2001 census, after which the Delimitation Act, 2002 freezed the activity till the next census after 2026.

‘Present strength is based on the 1971 census’ –President

Mr. Pranab Mukherjee, a veteran parliamentarian himself made a case for revisiting the delimitation provisions in an attempt to increase the number of parliamentarian constituencies in the country. He highlighted that the current number of seats are based on 1971 census data, which placed the population of India at approximately 54 crores.

The population has increased measurably since then, to around 1.34 billion. Of this large number, an MP represents around 1.6 million Indians. This proportion is significantly higher in developed and developing countries all over the world – 44,000 in UK, 65,000 in Italy, 192,000 in Mexico, 341,000 in Brazil and 360,000 in Indonesia. To put the picture to scale, the former President pointed out that UK has a larger 650 seats for a fraction of our population.

The constitutional hold on readjustment of number of parliamentary constituencies stemmed from the policy of the central government which encouraged the states to achieve positive population control. Since the states performed differently, it was considered unfair to allow increase in Lok Sabha seats on the basis of population, lest the states which were actually able to control the population explosion should be punished with lesser representation in the House of Commons. 

Problems faced while deciding seats:

Adequate representation becomes a challenge with the increase in the population. Common logic dictates that the population should be made the criteria for dividing Lok Sabha constituencies. While this may sound like a reasonable solution prima facie, it comes with its own set of problems:

  1. Punishing Educated States: The southern and western states of India took lead in population control through awareness and education, while the north Indian states continued with their population expansion. To put things into perspective, an MP from Kerala represents around 17 lakh people, while an MP from Rajasthan represents 27 lakh people. To readjust the number of constituencies based on population will result in the educated states getting a lower representation for the fault of effectively applying population control policies of the central government. 
  2. Welfare Indices Take a Toll: It is observed that states with higher population have lower human development and welfare indices. Population based readjustments awards inefficiency of the states by granting them higher representation in the Lok Sabha, thus empowering them to make decisions for the majority.
  3. Centralisation of Power: The federal nature of the Constitution encourages the Central Government (MPs) to work in coordination with the State Government (MLAs). Increasing the number of seats in Lok Sabha will lead to centralisation of power in the hands of MPs and dilute the role of State Legislatures. 
  4. Scope for Corrupt Practices: As goes the adage, political problems are directly proportional to the number of politicians. When the number of constituencies increased by breaking them into smaller areas, local leaders with vested interests may enter into politics, thus opening a backgate for corruption and malpractices. Further, the change in constituencies in the name of readjustment also allows gerrymandering to take place.

Gerrymandering:

Finding its roots in the American politics, the practice of gerrymandering refers to changing the boundaries of constituencies in a way that it shifts the probability of election in favour of a particular candidate by working out electoral arithmetic.

A report by Forbes found out that Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh are the least gerrymandered states while West Bengal and Assam are the most gerrymandered states.

Practically, however, each voter from a state gets an equal say, thus making any virtual gains from gerrymandering in India close to none. The Delimitation Commission of India draws up district boundaries based on recent census, but can’t change the number of seats each state has in the Lok Sabha.

The Commission comprises of members from Judiciary appointed after recommendation is made to the President by a collegium of senior judges. Thus, attempts have been made to make the system airtight and devoid of political intervention.  

Conclusion:

The former President strongly recommended that the times have changed and the electorates cannot be based upon a 50-years old census anymore. As of date, a party can win the majority in Lok Sabha by obtained a little above 30% votes.

In the opinion of the former President, each government should try to take all the members along, and not just the majority. Therefore, Mr. Pranab Mukherjee advocated that the constitutional ban may be lifted and readjustment of seats may be looked into.

Author: Samiksha Gupta from Symbiosis Law School, Pune.

Editor: Anna Jose Kallivayalil from NLU, Delhi.

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