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What 1991 missed—political reforms

Economic liberalization was left incomplete without political reforms. In fact, political reforms should have gone hand in hand with economic reforms

July 25, 2021 / 12:49 PM IST

When in July 1991, the newly installed Narasimha Rao government with Manmohan Singh as the Finance Minister unveiled a range of policy packages to reform the economy, all of us were super excited. Everybody believed that the country needed reforms to put it on the path of high growth in the country.

But the economy getting hamstrung by artificial controls which not only kept growth low but also led to misallocation of resources. I interviewed Manmohan Singh just a few days after he launched the reforms and remember how excited he was. I don’t know what Manmohan Singh would say now, but thirty years later – with the benefit of hindsight – I feel that the process was left incomplete without political reforms.

In fact, political reforms should have gone hand in hand with economic reforms, and without the political system (if I can dare to say) has got distorted. How?

Why political reforms are the need of the hour

But first the story from the beginning. India launched itself as an electoral democracy in 1952 with the first general election with an adult franchise. There were 489 seats in Lok Sabha then and 173 million voters. Over the years the number of seats began increasing with the population rising. Thus by 1971, the number of seats had increased to 518.

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At this point, DMK leader and representative in Lok Sabha then (later to be union minister) Murosoli Maran cried halt arguing that the population of the country was not increasing uniformly. In some states like Tamil Nadu, the population was growing slowly compared to say UP or Bihar.

But when the number of seats increased, the states with higher population growth benefitted more than states which grew at a relatively lower rate. In Madras state (as Tamil Nadu was originally called) and Andhra Pradesh, the number of seats had actually gone down. A higher representation in Lok Sabha meant that these states (like UP and Bihar) were getting ‘more powerful at the expense of states where the population was not increasing as much.

Since at that time, the Government of India was actively promoting family planning, Maran alleged that states which were successful in this programme were getting penalized.

“You kept population under control and the number of seats that you had in Lok Sabha was getting restricted, was this not strange?” he told this writer reminiscing about those times over two decades later.

Following Maran’s powerful intervention and the report of the Delimitation Commission of 1973, the number of seats was frozen until 2001 (it was actually frozen at 543 the number of seats that would have resulted after taking into account the Census of India 1971). But when 2001 ended, political parties were asked about their views on ‘de-freezing’ the number of Lok Sabha seats.

All of them were in favour of continuing the freeze. Pranab Mukherjee (then a Congress MP who later became President of India) told the audience at a conference held on the subject by the Federation of Chambers of Commerce and Industry of India (FICCI) in 1998: “I don’t see why this freeze cannot be extended.” Similar were the views of other parties like BJP which was represented by Jaswant Singh.

Thus in 2001, the freeze was extended by another 25 years. It was clear that across the board none of the political parties were interested in changing the ‘status quo’ fearing that it would unleash changes that they would find difficult to cope up with.

A 1977 pattern even today

Even today elections are continuing as per the total seats in 1977.  The population in the country in the intervening period has exploded. In the 1977 elections, there were 321 million voters. By 2019 (when the last general elections were held) this had gone up to 912 million voters. Although the number of voters has exploded, an increased number of voters are still electing the same number of MPs.

The consequence: with the number of voters having vastly increased, the elections have become more costly because more candidates are competing for the same number of seats.  Meanwhile, economic reforms initiated by Manmohan Singh in 1991 have reversely resulted in the distortion of politics. To stress the point, this was not at all the objective of liberalization.

But how did this distortion happen? By not increasing the number of seats as the population increased meant that each Lok Sabha seat had many more voters. While growing up in New Delhi, I recollect that the Lok Sabha seat had no more than 1.5 lakh voters in 1971.

However, now the seat had over 16 lakh voters in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls. To cater to the 16 lakh voters the candidates would have had to spend much more money and resources than the candidates had in 1971. New Delhi is actually a small constituency and in many more constituencies, the voter strength is more than 25-30 lakhs.

Thus to reach 25 lakh voters and campaign with them is not an easy task with a huge requirement of financial resources. The average politician (with values of the old times) can never manage to garner the resources that are now required to contest polls.

But with the advent of liberalisation, businessmen have earned more money due to the opening up of many sectors. They also have higher respectability in the new scenario. Even as politicians with old values have kept away from electoral politics, businessmen cum politicians have become dominant flashing their newly found importance and perhaps pursuing their agenda.

So it would have made sense to initiate a process of political reforms along with economic reforms. Then we would have a much higher number of Lok Sabha seats to match the growing population of the country. Since we have 545 seats in Lok Sabha perhaps it would be a good idea to treble them to 1,635 seats.

More able candidates will be able to contest because, with more seats (supply easing), the average per head cost of contesting will reduce. This would make democracy more meaningful and the more spacious Parliament building now being built on Rajpath will be put to good use!
Kingshuk Nag is a senior journalist based in Hyderabad.

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