Which ideal should have primacy in any state: equality or securing just treatment of minority groups? In a democracy, a lawmaker is usually directly chosen to represent a group of people from a designated area. Should it matter how many people he represents in comparison to other lawmakers? Or should it matter more which communities, for example ethnic groups, dominate the area that he is chosen to represent? What if these cannot be reconciled? These are problems common to all democratic systems and India is facing them as well.
India’s new constituency delimitation process has not even started yet and it is already causing debates – and it always has. Decades ago, it was envisaged that the Indian democratic system would follow the rule of equal representation. As the country mostly uses a first-past-the-post system – each constituency selecting one legislator – the idea of representation is concerned with drawing a constituency map in which constituencies would have much similar number of inhabitants, as much as is possible.
The most important elections are the national polls, which select the members of the Lok Sabha: the lower (but more powerful) house in the federal parliament. The constituencies for these election have their own drawn boundaries, different from the more numerous constituencies of state-level elections. For Lok Sabha elections, it is assumed that ideally a member of Parliament should represent 1 million people.
As India is a federation, important power sits with state governments, and thus states are important political units of the Union. For the sake of Lok Sabha delimitation, states had been thus treated as basic units as well – in the sense that the delimitation should take place in each state, first taking into consideration the population of the state, and then outlining the borders of constituencies so that each region would have approximately 1 million voters. To pick the simplest possible example: in 1971, the population of the state of Haryana was roughly 10 million people, and so the state was allotted 10 seats in the Lok Sabha to be taken by the state’s elected lawmakers. Accordingly, 10 constituencies were drawn on the map of Haryana.
But such numbers are bound to continuously change in an enormous country that has experienced tremendous demographic growth over the decades. It is not the fact that demographic growth is happening unevenly which is a challenge, but firstly, that various ethnic and linguistic regions had been very uneven in their representation from the very start, due to differences in their population.
The main division brought up in this context is between the country’s South and North. By the South, I mean here the five states dominated by Indians speaking Dravidian languages: Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Karnataka, Telangana, and Andhra Pradesh, plus the Union Territory of Pondicherry. The North is shorthand for the states of northern and central India, which are dominated by people speaking Indo-Aryan languages, with Hindi being the dominant among them. This latter region is the most populous area of India, and hence the one that is politically dominant over all others, a fact which has always been concerning for the peoples of other territories. With their dozens of millions of members, the primary linguistic groups of the South can hardly be considered minorities – but on the national level, they are smaller when compared to the entire North.
As per the current distribution, the above-mentioned territories in the South select 130 lawmakers: quite a formidable number in a house of 543 elected parliamentarians. But just two among the most populous states of the Hindi-speaking North, Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, together select 120 lawmakers, and there are more Hindi-speaking states, not to mention other states in the North. In other words, it was becoming technically possible to win national parliamentary elections in India by winning a vast majority of seats in the North, and none in the South – while the reverse is not possible.
Such apprehension led to a freezing of the delimitation process in 1976, a decision that favored the South over the North. Since a national census takes place in India every 10 years, it is technically possible to draw new constituencies every decade, basing them on the updated population numbers acquired from the census. Such constituencies would thus serve their purpose for two elections (Lok Sabha elections take place every five years). But the above-mentioned concerns led to a 1976 decision to pause any further delimitation. Thus, censuses are held every 10 years, but the composition of the Lok Sabha has largely not changed since 1971. As a result, disparities between numbers of lawmakers and populations are growing.
Moreover, demographic growth slowed down in parts of the South over the past decades more than in the North. Thus, if delimitation occurred now, the disparities between the regions would be greatly widened. Let me pick two extreme cases: Rajasthan in the North, Kerala in the South. In 1971, before the freezing of delimitation, the states had a similar starting position: The population of Kerala was 21 million, while that of Rajasthan was 25 million. In 2011, the population of Kerala had grown to 33 million, while that of Rajasthan had ballooned to 68 million. Mathematically speaking, and not taking into account other aspects, if new delimitation occurs now, the number of lawmakers Kerala sends to Lok Sabha would increase by half, while those selected from Rajasthan would double.
The next problem is that with the growth of the population, not only should constituencies be continuously redrawn, like a map changing within its borders, but the Lok Sabha should increase the number of lawmakers as well, like a room that grows wider as more seats are placed in it. As of the last survey (2011), India had a population of 1.210 billion people, and thus according to the 1 million-people-per-lawmaker rule it should house around 1,210 parliamentarians. But with the Lok Sabha “frozen” since 1976, the house still has 543 lawmakers.
It is obviously hard to imagine so many lawmakers in one room, and it is hard to imagine this room being continuously rearranged every decade to reflect India’s changing demographics. And so it is assumed that any new delimitation would have to also increase substantially the number of people per lawmaker. This appears to be what the government is laying the ground for – a new Lok Sabha building is being constructed, and it is reportedly being readied to house over 800 lawmakers. But this also means that any future delimitation, while expanding the number of lawmakers for each state, would have to proportionally limit those added numbers (for more, read this 2019 Carnegie report on the delimitation issue authored by Milan Vaishnav and Jamie Hintson).
The general conclusion, however, is that the freezing of delimitation is a solution that saves the South from seeing its parliamentary presence reduced as compared to the North. Any further delimitation would certainly create a further political imbalance between the North and South, although the degree of this would depend on the applied proportions. Conversely, the prolonging of the “freeze” further deepens the imbalance between the number of lawmakers and population numbers, creating wide inequalities between how many people lawmakers represent across constituencies.
Moreover, one of the main points against new delimitation – a point that connect demographic growth and politics – is that states should in fact strive to slow down demographic growth. Since delimitation would update lawmaker numbers based on state-level population growth, those states with the highest demographic growth would gain largest number of parliamentarians, even though one of the many reasons for rapid population growth is poverty. As pointed out in an article on delimitation by Shoaib Daniyal for Scroll.in, the state of Kerala is one of the regions where demographic growth has lost the most speed. Kerala is not a rich region even by Indian standards, but the state has achieved much more success in areas such as education and social policies than Rajasthan, where poverty is much more acute. In terms of average literacy, for instance, Kerala is at the very top of the ranking of Indian states, while Rajasthan remains close to the bottom. Hence, many argue, enlarging the numbers of lawmakers in relation to population growth in a way penalizes those states that have achieved more in terms of slowing down their demographic growth.
As usual, there is also a partisan, political aspect. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the party currently ruling India, draws most of its electorate from the North, particularly from Hindi-speaking regions but also other adjacent states, such as Gujarat. Its presence in the South is very limited, and in some regions next to non-existent, barring the state of Karnataka. It won resounding victories in 2014 and 2019 on the national level, and so on can argue that currently the BJP does not need to update lawmaker numbers through delimitation to win. But it is clear that in case of delimitation, the North will gain more, and thus so will the BJP, being the dominant national party of that enormous region. In the future, in case the party’s control is dented, delimitation may emerge as a central tool to keep it in power.
Regardless of the above points and counterpoints, delimitation appears to be imminent. In 1976, the freeze had been mandated to last until 2001. In 2001, this small ice age was prolonged to 2026. The government could perhaps continue prolonging the deadline but the ongoing construction of parliamentary buildings in New Delhi suggests it does not want to. As mentioned above, the new Lok Sabha building is being constructed to house over 800 lawmakers. This does not mean that delimitation must start in 2026 and that all new seats in the new Lok Sabha building must be filled with parliamentarians right from its inauguration. But it appears that their numbers must sooner or later increase. Once new delimitation starts, the same debate – between equality and securing just treatment of minority groups – is certain to flare up again.