Posted on July 23, 2007Last week marked a couple of historic firsts for India. The country elected a former lawyer and state governor as its first woman president, but the election was marred by unprecedented partisan wrangling and mudslinging.
Marred because, unlike the US president, the Indian president is a ceremonial head-of-state with few real powers. The position has traditionally been held by widely known and respected individuals with a laudable track record in public life, and past elections were characterized by a bipartisan and friendly atmosphere. Hence, the intense maneuvering and bitter rivalry throughout this year"s nomination and campaigning phase, especially within the ruling coalition, was quite unseemly.
Unseemly, yes, but perhaps not unexpected. Ever since the decline of the Indian National Congress - the party that led the country to independence from British rule in 1947 and dominated the political landscape for four decades - Indian politics has seen the rise of a large number of regional parties and elections have repeatedly thrown up fractured mandates, necessitating coalition rule. In this scenario, the presidency has acquired a politically crucial dimension, for the president has the prerogative of inviting the party or coalition of parties with the largest number of MPs to form the government after an election. This is a mere formality when elections lead to a clear winner. However, when no single party wins enough seats and party realignments take place on a daily basis, the president can exercise a great deal of real discretionary power.
But, despite all the media focus on the campaign, the question of how the president is actually elected went largely ignored.
Like the US president, the Indian president is elected indirectly through an electoral college. But the similarity ends there. The electoral college in India is a 4,896-strong body, comprising 776 elected members of Parliament (543 in the lower house, and 233 in the upper) and 4,120 members of state legislatures (nominated members excluded). The electoral system combines weighted voting and instant runoff voting (IRV).
Electors have weighted votes. The value of a state legislator"s vote is equal to the state"s population divided by number of seats in the legislature, while the value of an MP"s vote is equal to the total vote value of all state legislators divided by the number of elected MPs. In this election, for example, the total vote value of all state legislators was 549,474, the vote value of each MP stood at 708, and the total vote value of the electoral college was 1,098,882.
The electors rank candidates in order of preference, and vote counting follows the IRV method. A candidate has to secure a minimum of 50%+1 first choices (in terms of weighted vote value) in order to become president. In case no candidate meets this threshold in the first round of counting, the candidate with lowest vote value is eliminated and his/her votes distributed among the remaining candidates according to the second preference marked on the ballots. These steps are repeated till there"s a clear winner.
Usually, the IRV provision does not come into play because the contest boils down to only two candidates - one supported by the ruling coalition and the other by the combined opposition. This election was no different. However, given the fact that presidential elections in India are becoming increasingly contentious and intra-coalition consensus on the issue is under strain, there might be more than two candidates in the future. In that likely scenario, IRV will ensure that the nominee with majority support gets elected.