Quite by coincidence, November will see three very important elections. On November 3, American voters will decide whether incumbent Republican President Donal Trump will continue or else opt to have him replaced by Democrat Joe Biden. On November 7, India will see a crucial state election in Bihar and together with it, Manipur will see by-elections to four of the 13 vacant Assembly seats on account of Manipur brand of despicable characterless politics of defection and disloyalty. There was to be five byelection this time, but one, that of Singhat, has been already decided uncontested in favour the ruling BJP. On November 8, neighbouring Myanmar will also go the polls to decide who will rule the country for the next five years. These three elections are extremely interesting in their own ways in these trying times, when the idea of democracy itself is being questioned, for each of them has demonstrated different facets of the weaknesses of the structure of the democratic polity itself. It is easy to define democracy as rule by the people, but more than ever before, the difficult question which has come to the fore is, how do you design a political architecture to ensure this idea of rule by the people is guaranteed. Let there also be no doubt that no model of democracy has been perfect, and each of the known variants has had some serious flaw or the other.
Very broadly, we know there are two different approaches to a democratic polity. One is the “First-Past-The-Post”, the system that India and most other former colonies of Britain follows, where voters elect individual leaders directly to represent them at the state Assemblies or else Union Parliament. This system can throw up bizarre results. As for instance, in Manipur, if a political party were to put up candidates in all 60 seats, but loses in each of them very narrowly, the party will have no representation in the Assembly. Even a party which fields just one candidate and wins will be treated as above them. In a multi-party contest, the losing party’s vote share can even be above even the party which emerges as the ultimate winner. Consider this scenario. Even if this winner also had fielded candidates in all 60 seats, and ended up bagging only 31 seats narrowly but lost the remaining 29 by huge margins, the aggregated number of votes the winner received from all constituencies can be less than those who voted the party that lost all seats narrowly. Under the circumstance, can the system be still called rule by the people. The other model is what is referred to as “Proportional Representation”. In this, the voters vote for the party not individual leaders, and depending on the vote percentage the parties win, they will be entitled to send a proportionate number of representatives to the Assembly or Parliament. In this system, what counts is the percentage of votes won, and there will be no individual winners. For the kind of loyalty devoid politics as in Manipur, we have argued before this system would have been much more suitable, for then, if a representative likes to defect, he or she can do so freely, but the person cannot take his seat with him as the voters’ mandate is for the party not the individual. The party can then depute another to represent them in the Assembly.
The USA follows a curious mix of two systems. In their presidential election, each of the 50 states vote to elect their president but indirectly. In the first layer of voting, each of the states vote separately to elect their entitled number of electors who will then become part of an electoral college which will vote to elect the president in the final layer of voting. Hence in the first round of election on November 3, candidates can win different states but lose others. The number of electors in each state is weighted to level up the smaller states with the bigger one. Because of this, America has seen situation in which a presidential candidate wins the election by electoral college votes, though having lost in the overall popular votes count. This happened even in the last election in which Trump beat Hillary Clinton narrowly by the electoral college votes although Clinton was ahead by over 3 million popular votes. Again, of the two legislative houses of the country together known as Congress, the House of Representative directly elected its members, each representing roughly equal number of voters, but the second House, or the Senate, has two members each equally from each state regardless of population. This made sense about 300 years ago when America came into being for each of the states were like different nations coming together to form a federal union. But 300 years down history, these differences have somewhat been flattened and Americans today vote not for their states but largely for two parties – the Democrats and Republicans – across the country. However, even though the underlying purpose has changed almost completely, the old structure catering to the now redundant need, remains intact, leading to a new glaring imbalance.
In the centuries that have gone by, there has been another expected change in demography pattern. The industrial coastal states, dotted with mega cities, tend to have much bigger and multi-ethnic populations, as people gravitate towards them for jobs and commerce. The heartland states, on the contrary are sparsely populated, very White and conservative, and the population tend to lean towards the aging side, as their own younger people also tend to migrate to the cities and industrial coastal belts, pulled by the same forces of new lifestyles and occupations. This has also meant the mix population coastal states tend to lean toward the more liberal politics of the Democrats, while the White, conservative and ageing heartland states tend towards the conservative Republicans. Again, though home of much smaller number of people, in terms of numbers of seats in the electoral college, heartland states aggregate a disproportionately higher number over the coastal. Since the conservative heartland states tend towards the Republican party, not only is there a tendency for the Republican Party to control the Senate but also command a larger share of the electoral college votes than warranted by population, making the power structure of the US government seem lopsided and needing reform. However, as observers have pointed out, this would be like asking those who benefit from a faulty power structure to voluntarily relinquish their own position of power, making any prospect for change remote.
The other election on the near horizon is that of Myanmar, and like the earlier two just discussed, this new democracy too has its own crippling flaws, ones which have proven quite incapable of tackling some of the country’s endemic problems, most particularly the divide between the Myanmar’s mainstream of plains and the peripheral hills, though in terms of physical geography, the hills occupy more land area than the plains. Myanmar too has adopted the “First-Past-The-Post” model of democracy after five decades of military rule, probably again as a legacy from the British who once colonised them. For those of us from the Northeast, the country is also interesting for the reason that its seeming strengths and flaws are so similar to those in our own region. If Robert Reid’s plan to merge part of what is now India’s Northeast and Myanmar’s Northwest as a Crown Colony, a plan which also is sometimes referred to erroneously as “Coupland Plan” because of some latter-day lazy scholarship, it is imaginable how much more similar such an entity’s problem would have been to today’s Myanmar. Multiple ethnic identities, each proudly claiming uniqueness and seldom seeing eye to eye with each other, unbridged economic divides between fertile plains and rugged sparsely populated mountains leading, among others, to several layers of friction, sometimes violent ones. As is often said of the Northeast and indeed India, many keen observers are of the opinion that Myanmar too should not have opted for a pure “First-Past-The-Post” Anglo Saxon model, but incorporated some features of the “Proportional Representation” in the effort to level out some of the unevenness in economy, though largely a consequence of its peculiar geography and demography. Many see Myanmar’s real challenge now is to deepen its own brand of democracy by moderating and modifying its 2008 constitution, but because of the many baggage it carries, including importantly a politicised military, this is predicted to prove difficult, if not impossible for a long time. Like the Senate or the electoral college system in the US, change can only come about if Myanmar leadership are able to resort to the way of what many have referred to as the “Moral Imagination”, to break free of this prison of perspective.
Editor, Imphal Review of Arts and Politics and author