The Cambridge Compromise: A solution to India’s delimitation dilemma?

by Vishwesh Sundar

Sansad bhavan

Sansad Bhavan, Delhi. Deepak Gupta via Flickr.

In response to a question on the need to construct a new parliament building, the Indian Union Minister of Housing and Urban Affairs, Hardeep Singh Puri, reasoned that, among other factors, the current building could not house additional members should there be an increase in seats in the Lok Sabha (House of the People). The enlargement of the Lok Sabha is much needed because currently 1.3 billion Indians are represented in parliament by just 543 representatives. Each Member of Parliament (MP) represents roughly 2.3 million people, approximately equal to the population of Qatar. Contrast this with the European Parliament, which despite being an elected legislative body of a supranational organisation and not a country, has 705 members (MEPs) representing 446 million people. Thus, in comparison to India, it has roughly 1.5 times the number of representatives representing around a third of India’s population. In a few years from now, the Lok Sabha will face the bigger challenge of deciding how the seats of an enlarged parliament should be apportioned among the Indian states.

According to Article 82 of the Indian Constitution, the Delimitation Commission is entrusted with the task of redrawing the constituencies based on the most recent census data. This practice was followed until the 1970s and constituencies were redrawn to account for decadal changes due to a natural increase in population and migration. This provision meant that states with a higher fertility rate would enjoy greater political representation across generations. However, it also contradicted Indira Gandhi government’s objective of population control. Therefore, in 1976, through the 42nd Amendment, the parliamentary and assembly seats that were determined by the 1971 Census were frozen until the 2001 Census so that states were not penalised for effectively executing family planning programmes. Through the 84th Amendment, this freeze was further extended until 2026 and only the boundaries within the states were redrawn to equate the population between the state constituencies. This has created a discrepancy between the number of voters per constituency with some having as many as 3 million and others less than 50,000. This violates the principle of one-person, one-vote or the parity in the value of the vote of each elector. In 1971, the states of Tamil Nadu and Bihar had a population parity of about 42 million and thus got 39 and 40 parliamentary seats respectively. Today, Bihar’s population is approximately 1.5 times that of Tamil Nadu. Similarly, although the present population of the state of Madhya Pradesh is slightly more than that of Tamil Nadu, the former has only 29 seats while the latter has 39.

After nearly 50 years, the Delimitation Commission will be tasked again with redrawing the boundaries after the first Census of 2026, most likely in 2031. The rationale for this postponement is that by 2026 India will have reduced the fertility rate to replacement levels and, consequently, the population of the country will have stabilised. Many political commentators have already rung alarm bells about the political tensions that are likely to arise as the political centre of gravity of the country shifts towards the Gangetic belt. MPs from just the three states of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and West Bengal will constitute a third of the parliament. Moreover, the Rajya Sabha (Council of States) will reflect a similar composition of seat distribution. With the delimitation set to happen in just six years, and a third postponement unlikely, the task of finding a solution is more urgent than ever. An idea that is gaining popularity is to increase the parliamentary seats in a way that no state stands to lose any but additional seats are given to those that are under-represented. However, this reform would still not assuage the concern of some states being able to dominate parliamentary discussions as now they would get a bigger portion of an enlarged pie. At this juncture, it is worth studying the European Parliament model of representation and the Cambridge Compromise.

While the Cambridge Compromise can be localised to the Indian context, the bigger challenge would be to garner the political will to enact such drastic parliamentary reforms.

In many respects, the European Union (EU) and India are similar. Both have a socially and culturally diverse population. An example of this is that just as India has recognised Hindi and English as official languages at the national level and 22 official languages at the state level, the EU has 24 official languages, of which English, French and German are used as ‘procedural languages’ in the European Commission, the EU’s executive branch. Concerning voting and representation, MEPs too have been elected by direct universal suffrage since 1979, also for a term of five years. However, a striking difference is that while India is a sovereign country, the EU is a supranational organisation with delegated sovereignty. This difference is crucial with respect to feelings of belonging and representation.

Nevertheless, the principle of degressive proportionality used to determine the distribution of the 705 seats in the European Parliament among the 27 Member States can be localised to the Indian context. According to this principle, the Member States’ representation ratios, that is, the population figure divided by the number of seats before rounding, decrease from the more populous to less populous Member States. Care is also taken to ensure that no smaller Member State receives more seats than a larger one. The Lisbon Treaty added another safeguard by setting the maximum number of seats per Member State – currently applying to Germany – to 96 and the minimum number to 6 for the smallest Member States of Malta, Luxembourg, Estonia and Cyprus.

The Committee on Constitutional Affairs of the European Parliament commissioned a group of mathematicians to recommend a formula that would apportion the seats of the European Parliament among Member States in a manner that was ‘durable, transparent and impartial to politics’. This led to the publication of the Cambridge Compromise of 2011, which was drafted in accordance with the constraints set by the Lisbon Treaty. The recommendations propose a two-step process termed the ‘Base+prop method’. In the first stage, a fixed number of seats is allocated to each country. In the second stage, the remainder is distributed in proportion to population sizes with upwards rounding. This rule does not apply to the most and least populous countries for which a respective maximum and minimum ceiling is predetermined. This method can be considered a suitable compromise between the proportional representation system followed in India and the strict degressive representation system followed in the US Senate, where every state has two seats irrespective of its population size.

Despite the composition of the European Parliament broadly adhering to the principle of degressive proportionality, scholars criticise it as a highly unequal parliament. They argue that smaller Member States are over-represented, leading to a ‘structural democratic deficit’ in the EU. The Cambridge Compromise, which could have slightly corrected this inequality post-Brexit, was also rejected in favour of a ‘pragmatic solution’ where no EU country loses any seats, while under-represented countries gain between one and five.  

In conclusion, while the Cambridge Compromise can be adjusted and localised to the Indian context, the bigger challenge would be to garner the political will to enact such drastic parliamentary reforms. Irrespective of the solution adopted, however, India should utilise this opportunity to reform representation in parliament in a way that protects the interests of the smaller states while simultaneously distributing seats to reflect population differences.

About the author

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Vishwesh Sundar is a recent graduate of the Advanced Master in International Relations and Diplomacy at Leiden University, The Hague. He was previously a research assistant at the Clingendael Institute in The Hague and contributed to projects as part of the EU-India Think Tank Twinning Initiative.

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