“Vote banks, communal or religious economic or social coercion and intimidatory methods which interfere with free franchise, use of official pressure or blandishments interpreted in the electoral annotation, must be prohibited as corrupt practices”. – Justice V.R. Krishna Iyer in his book Constitutional Miscellany.
Democracy in India is one of the cardinal principles of the constitutional values which has been guaranteed to its citizens. The role of the State as a social institution draws its contemporary powers and sovereignty from its citizens. Constitutionalism demands electoral democracy and popular sovereignty, which requires not just theoretical representation but also equal representation. Since the end of the Cold war, the universality of elections and electoral reforms has been institutionalized by democracy.
A radical move was taken by the Constituent Assembly by adopting the parliamentary system of governance in India. It is also quintessential to understand that it was implemented at a time when more than three-fourth of the world’s population lived under autocratic or partly free governments and it was still a distant dream for majority of the world population to exercise their civil liberties and to freely participate in political life. The success of Indian elections is not limited to political liberalization or democratic advancement, it has also played a vital role in the transfer of power from the entitled to empowered.
A vibrant democracy requires timely reforms. The Constitution of India has put a cap on the maximum number of representatives (MPs) elected to Lok Sabha at 550. In countries like the United Kingdom, there are 650 MPs with each one representing roughly 1 lakh individuals. In India’s demography, each MP represents about 24 lakh citizens, i.e., 1.3 billion divided among 545 Lok Sabha MPs. India is one of the most disproportionately represented parliamentary systems in the world. The problem is not limited to this, the bigger elephant in the room is the issue of – unequal representation. India is the second populous country in the world and there is a growing need to exercise delimitation of constituencies to ensure equitable representation.
Delimitation means the act or process of fixing limits or boundaries of territorial constituencies in a country or a province having a legislative body. A delimitation commission is set up to undertake the exercise across the country. There are multiple methodologies used for delimitation are the Jefferson method, the Hamilton method, Quota method, Webster method, etc. India used the Webster method or one-person-one-vote method. India has redrawn its Lok Sabha boundaries four times in 1952, 1963, 1973 and 2002. The Indian Constitution has laid down certain basic rules for delimitation and left out other actual procedural regulations to be decided by the parliament. The idea of delimitation is to have each MP represent roughly an equal number of voters. Articles 81, 82, 170, 330 and 332 of the Constitution touches upon the constitutional provision of delimitations and electorate matters. As per Article 82 of the Indian Constitution, delimitation shall be carried out by such authority and in such manner as the Parliament may by law determine. Article 81 (3) after the 42nd Amendment provides that in this article, the expression population means the population as ascertained at the last preceding census of which the relevant figures have been published: Provided that the reference in this clause to the last preceding census of which the relevant figures have been published shall, until the relevant figures for the first census taken after the year 2000 have been published, be construed as a reference to the 1971 census (which was 54.81 crore with a registered electorate of 27.4 crores).
The Constitution (Eighty-fourth Amendment), Act 2001 under Section 3 extended the deadline from 2000 to 2026. This was done because states like Kerala, Punjab and Tamil Nadu would lose several seats as they had brought down their fertility rates, whereas poor family planning programmes had ensured that the population in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Rajasthan continued to be high. This would have affected the representation of states in the Lok Sabha. Both the 42nd and 84th amendments froze the number of Lok Sabha seats from 1981 to 2031 for 50 years. The population of India according to 2011 Census is around 121 crores out of which 83.41 are registered voters. Keeping the 1971 Census with 27.4 crores registered electorate as a yardstick to demarcate constituencies to represent today’s 1.3 billion people is counterproductive to democracy. 2026 timeline set for fresh delimitation would be done after 2031 with new census figures, which is expected to revamp the existing territorial boundaries of seat allocation to the States in Parliament.
By making the provisions of Article 370 of the Constitution of India otiose, the Modi Government has given hints of addressing the delimitation issues of the legislative assembly seats in the Union Territory of Jammu and Kashmir. Non-applicability of People’s Representation Act of India in Jammu and Kashmir has been a common hindrance to the delimitation of Parliamentary seats as recommended by Justice Kuldeep Singh Commission. Kashmir valley comprising of the total area of 15953 sq. kms had 46 Assembly seats as compared to 37 seats for Jammu region whose geographical areas is 26293 sq. Kms. There are wide disparities with constituencies based on demography like Gurez Assembly has merely 18,000 voters against around two lakh voters of Jammu West and Gandhi Nagar constituencies. Kishtwar region has only two assembly seats with an area of 7824 sq. kms is half of the area of the entire Kashmir region.
Delimitation is not just a political process, it’s an administrative action backed with political intent. The process, if implemented in 2031, would lead to some substantial problems. Politically, it might expand the North-South divide. There would be a substantial increase in the number of MPs from the states in the Hindi belt but not from those of the South as these states have better-managed population control. 2018 already saw the Southern States coming together to express their anger against the 15th Finance Commission which determines the share of each state in the nation’s resources. They claimed that the richer and less populous states in South India end up contributing more than they receive. With the success of urban development programs and start-up hubs in Telangana and Andhra Pradesh has led to large foreign investments in the region, which is all set to economically advance their contribution to the national economy.
According to an IndiaSpend analysis of data in a Kotak Securities report on the demographic dividend of India’s Gangetic Belt which includes – Uttarakhand, UP, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh and West Bengal, if India’s parliamentary seats were to be re-allocated across states on the basis of population, the Gangetic belt would send 275 of 548 members of parliament (MPs) to the Lok Sabha. It was also reported that around 33% of members of the Lok Sabha will come from three states – Uttar Pradesh (UP), Bihar and West Bengal.
Secondly, the administrative problem of gerrymandering, i.e. boundaries are redrawn in such a manner that it favours the outcome of an election for a particular party or candidate. Democracy can be easily hijacked as a legitimising tool by undemocratic forces. The 2002 Delimitation Commission had politicians as its members and this led to charges being raised of malpractices and manipulation.
With an upper limit on the maximum number of representatives mandated by the Constitution, it is upon the policymakers to look for alternatives. It can be adopting the presidential system of governance or decentralising power. Number of MPs in metropolitan cities can be reduced substantially by empowering mayors or strengthening municipal corporations.
The process of defining the areas and nature of such constituencies is important to ensure good governance and accountability. Underrepresentation of voices of the people in the Parliament is a great threat to our Constitutional mandate. While constitutions of countries like New Zealand and South Africa provide explicitly for delimitation, in others like India and Ireland, it is left to the Parliament to make legislation. 2031 is not far away and it is crucial upon the Government to start consultations with States and bring more legal clarity into the matter.
Abhishek Negi is an assistant professor of law at Dharmashastra National Law University and Adithya Anil Variath is a student of Master of Laws at the institute.