Delimitation of parliamentary constituencies is the last thing India needs at this moment

The seating capacity of the newly inaugurated Lok Sabha has been expanded to 888. This seemingly trivial detail can have the potential of triggering a political avalanche. It has already revived speculation that the BJP is very keen on reapportioning the number of seats for each state in the next delimitation of parliamentary constituencies. This is not a wild speculation, but a real though outside possibility. This is not a lunatic proposal, but one backed by practical and principled justification. Yet this is the last thing that India needs at this stage.

Let us first understand what the speculation is all about. The Lok Sabh currently has 543 seats (plus 2 reserved for Anglo Indians). The maximum number allowed under the constitution is 552. The Constitution also provides for how these seats would be divided among different states as per their share in the population. The question is: what happens when the share of different states in the country’s population undergoes a change. The Constitution provides for a revision every ten years, in proportion to the population in the latest decennial Census. This reapportionment was carried out after the Census of 1961 and 1971 but stopped after a Constitutional amendment in 1976 that froze the share of each state till after the Census of 2001. When the time came, the freeze was extended till after 2026.

After the last extension it was widely believed that this freeze is here to stay. But of late the BJP has shown inclination to consider the proposal for a fresh allocation. This could be carried out in two ways. Either the number of seats for some states could be cut down to make room for extra seats for some others. Or the same result could be achieved by expanding the size of the Lok Sabha so that the current number of seats need not be reduced for any state, while those with higher growth in population could get extra seats. If you want to follow the second approach and ensure that Kerala retains 20 seats, you would need to expand the size of the Lok Sabha to 866 seats. That is why the seating capacity of the new Lok Sabha building has raised eyebrows.

Let us understand the consequences of this proposal. If we reallocate Lok Sabha seats in proportion to each state’s projected population in 2026, all the south Indian states would be losers. The worst sufferer, Kerala, would lose 8 seats (from 20 currently to just 12). Other major losers would be Tamil Nadu (8 seats), AP and Telangana (8 seats combined), West Bengal (4 seats), Odisha (3 seats), and Karnataka (2 seats). Punjab, HP and Uttarakhand would lose 1 seat each. All the big gains would accrue to north Indian Hindi speaking states: Uttar Pradesh (11 seats), Bihar (10 seats), Rajsathan (6 seats) and Madhya Pradesh (4 seats). Delhi, Haryana, Gujarat, Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand would gain 1 seat each. Maharashtra, Assam and erstwhile J&K would remain unaffected.

That is the nub of the matters. Seats as per population proportion would mean that Hindi speaking states would have a net gain of 33 seats at the expense of non-Hindi speaking states. The “Hindi heartland” that already controls 226 out of 543 seats would now have 259 seats, nearly a majority (or a clear majority if you consider the population of Hindi speakers in some of the big cities in the non-Hindi states).

Expanding the size of the house would change the appearance but not the substance. If the size of the lower house is raised to 848, Kerala can have the consolation of retaining its 20 seats, but then Uttar Pradesh would have 143 seats and the share of Bihar would go up to 79 and that of Rajasthan to 50. The Hindi heartland would continue to enjoy a near majority. And no prize for guessing who the beneficiary of this new distribution would be. If the Lok Sabha seats share followed the 2011 Census, the BJP would have secured additional and critical 17 seats, mostly at the expense of regional parties.

This would violate an unwritten federal compact that binds the Indian union. This involves non-domination of any one constituent unit of the union. As it is, the numeric preponderance of the Hindi speaking states threatens federal parity.

To be fair, the proposal is not devoid of rationale. Strictly speaking, this is in accordance with the highest democratic principle of one-person one-vote one-value. It can be argued that the current seats allocation is in serious violation of that principle. While in UP nearly 3 million population gets one MP, the corresponding figure is just 1.8 million in TN. So, the political value of a citizen in TN is nearly double that of someone who lives in UP. This is not a desirable state of affairs. That is why our constitution provided for a decennial review of the state-wise share of seats. Ordinarily, a democrat should support this provision and regular reapportionment.

It should also be acknowledged that the most common argument against this redistribution, that it would be unfair to states that succeeded in family planning is bad reasoning. Trends of birth and death rates are a function of prosperity and literacy, not that of a family planning policy. Besides, the same argument can be used against weaker sections of society – SC, ST, Muslims or the poor – who have a higher population growth rate or indeed at the global scale against poor countries like India.

Yet this proposal must be rejected as it runs against another principle, namely federalism, long accepted as a constituent of the “basic structure” of our constitution. It so happens that the gainers and losers in this bargain are arrayed along a fault line that it at once geographic, linguistic, economic and political. The gainers are located in north India, the losers are mainly from the south and the east. Almost all the gainers are Hindi-speakers. Almost all the non-Hindi speakers (including Odiya, Bengali and Punjabi speakers) would be on the losing side. This grouping of states overlaps with those states who have been the engines of economic growth and already hold a grudge against what they perceive to be a discriminatory tax regime, especially after the GST. Finally, many of the states that gain seats have Congress vs BJP competition (or state specific parties that are not regional in ideology) while the losing states favour regional parties. Pressing the claims of population based quota of seats would accentuate the impression of a north Indian, Hindi speaking domination.

This would violate an unwritten federal compact that binds the Indian union. This involves non-domination of any one constituent unit of the union. As it is, the numeric preponderance of the Hindi speaking states threatens federal parity. Accentuating this further and allowing Hindi heartland states to reach a majority mark in the lower house may cross the red line in the eyes of many non-Hindi speakers. Therefore it is most prudent to apply the brakes now and act as if a
north-south (or better Hindi and non-Hindi) compact was written into the constitution.

Politics is not about a simple application of a single principle. All serious ethical choices involve adjudicating between competing principles. In this case the democratic principle must be weighed against the federal principle. And at this juncture in our national history, the federal principle must trump. A refusal or even
ambivalence at this juncture could undermine the unity of India. This is the last thing we need at this moment when we are already battling a political campaign to create a Hindu-Muslim division.