In 2026, there will be a significant readjustment of Lok Sabha seats—granting North Indian states a decisive majority. The reason: the North has far more citizens than the South. So should the South be “punished” for population control—or is it the inevitable price of fair representation? That debate may well rip the country apart in the future.
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Researched by: Rachel John
First: how ‘one person, one vote’ works in India
Democracies are built on the bedrock principle of representation. Hence, the Constitution assigns seats based on population numbers.
The total: Article 81 caps the number of Lok Sabha seats at 550—of which no more than 20 can be assigned to smaller union territories. Today, we have 543 seats—of which UTs have 13.
The ratio: The article also requires that the ratio of the number of citizens represented by each seat be roughly equal “so far as practicable”. But to ensure that the smallest states are not left out, those with populations lower than six million are assured at least one seat.
The census: Since the population of a state is critical to determining its share of Lok Sabha seats, the numbers are supposed to be allocated on the basis of the most recent census. After each census, the government is supposed to undertake a ‘delimitation’ exercise—where the number and share of seats are readjusted to reflect changes in the population.
The fraught history of delimitation
The pre-Indira years: Until 1976, the Indian government dutifully followed the Constitution’s mandates to the tee—jiggering seats every 10 years to match changes in population. The first delimitation exercise was carried out before the 1952 elections—which also set up the first Delimitation Commission. At the time, the upper limit for Lok Sabha seats was 500. Over the coming years, that limit moved upwards as new states were formed—including Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu in 1953 and the creation of Haryana in 1966. Reminder: the current cap is 550.
The Emergency freeze: In 1976, the Indira Gandhi government pushed through the highly controversial 42nd Amendment to the Constitution. It added a clause to Article 81—which declared the reference 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.”
Translation: the only census that counts is the one conducted in 1971—and any delimitation exercise must be based on its numbers until 2000. At the time, India’s population was 548 million (54.8 crore) with a registered electorate of 274 million (27.4 crore). Indira Gandhi had two reasons for this grand chess move:
- South Indian states should not be punished for their great success in controlling their population growth. As you may recall, family planning was a core goal of the Indira regime.
- The Congress was still going strong in the South but doing terribly in the North—where its vote share dropped from 43.5% to 34.5% between 1971 and 1977. This was primarily because Uttar Pradesh and Bihar bore the brunt of her government’s forcible sterilisation drives.
The Ice Age extended: When 2001 rolled around—and Indira Gandhi was long gone— the BJP-led NDA government simply extended the constitutional freeze until 2026, offering almost identical reasons. The deadline was extended “keeping in view the progress of family planning programmes in different parts of the country…as part of the National Population Policy strategy.” Also this: “The real fear was not about population control but about political control as southern regional parties were part of the NDA and were crucial for the survival of the government.” The BJP also nursed greater ambitions of expanding its footprint in Kerala and Tamil Nadu in the 2001 state elections.
Point to note: There was a limited delimitation exercise conducted between 2001 and 2008. But they only redrew the boundaries of existing constituencies to reflect the local population numbers. The total number of Lok Sabha seats remained the same. And there have been similar exercises undertaken in some states, most controversially in Kashmir. Plans to do the same in some Northeastern states are in legal limbo for now.
The great 2026 reckoning
The Modi government has signalled that it will not be kicking this can down the road again. One clear sign: The size of the new Parliament building that is designed to accommodate 800-plus members. So what will this great delimitation exercise bring?
The census: The government last conducted a census in 2011. The 2021 census was canned due to the pandemic—and the next one is slated for 2031. Its numbers will supposedly drive the delimitation maths—unless the government decides to reschedule the delayed 2021 census before 2026. The new Parliament building has 800-plus seats—which seems to be based not on the last census but voter turnout in the 2019 elections (more on that below). So the government may well change how we arrive at the fair number of Lok Sabha seats.
The great representation gap: Irrespective of which census is used, the current number of Lok Sabha seats is already glaringly lopsided—since they’re based on population estimates that are 70-odd years old. Under the principles of representation, one MP should roughly represent one million citizens. According to the 2011 census, India had a population of 1.210 billion people—and thus should have 1,210 Lok Sabha members.
Now, given our booming population, it is likely that the ‘one million’ rule will be amended to ensure we don’t end up with ever larger and unwieldy numbers of MPs. The new Parliament appears to be based on the 2019 electoral turnout of 880 million (88 crore voters)—which gives us the number of 888 MPs.
The great population gap: The biggest challenge is that India’s population has not grown evenly across states. There is a clear North-South divide as this example glaringly reveals:
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.
This yawning gap holds true across the board. As BBC News points out, in 1951, Tamil Nadu’s population was slightly higher than Bihar’s. Six decades later, Bihar’s population is nearly 1.5X of Tamil Nadu.
Also: take a look at this Carnegie Endowment chart of fertility rates between 2001 and 2016:
The great representation divide: Taken together, Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Karnataka, Telangana, Andhra Pradesh and Pondicherry have 130 out of 543 seats. Just based on 2001 census numbers, South Indian states should have far fewer numbers. Tamil Nadu ought to have lost seven Lok Sabha seats—while Uttar Pradesh should have gained seven. The under-representation of the North is likely to be even more severe given current demographic numbers.
Estimating the new Lok Sabha: Here’s what calculations by Milan Vaishnav and Jamie Hinston over at Carnegie Endowment reveals:
Four north Indian states (Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, and Uttar Pradesh) would collectively gain 22 seats, while four southern states (Andhra Pradesh, Kerala, Telangana, and Tamil Nadu) would lose 17 seats. Based on our population projections, these trends will only intensify as time goes on. In 2026, for instance, Bihar and Uttar Pradesh alone stand to gain 21 seats while Kerala and Tamil Nadu would forfeit as many as 16.
The broader shift will also change the regional distribution of seats reserved for Dalits—though not the overall number: “Slower-growing southern states would lose reserved seats while faster-growing northern states would gain them. All told, the reservation status of 18 seats would change.”
Knock-on effect on elections: The North-South population gap mirrors a great political divide within the country—which makes delimitation all the more fraught. As The Diplomat notes, Uttar Pradesh and Bihar alone select 120 out of the current total of 543 MPs—making it entirely possible to win a national election without the South.
Now add in the other Hindi-speaking states, and that advantage becomes formidable. If a delimitation was undertaken today, Kerala’s share would only increase by 50%—while that of Rajasthan would double. The Quint assumes a new total of 888 MPs and arrives at this conclusion:
A simple extrapolation of the current number of seats held by the BJP, Congress and Others to the new Lower House, shows that BJP could have 515 MPs, Congress could have 75, and regional parties and Independents would have 296 MPs.
Point to note: The worst hit would be regional parties since roughly 40% of them are from the South. And these parties have been a formidable bulwark against BJP expansion across the country. For example, here are the BJP’s 2019 Lok Sabha election numbers:
The BJP’s vote share across the five southern states was 17.6%, well below its national vote share of 38%. The party could only secure 29 seats (25 of which were in Karnataka) of the 88 constituencies it contested, a 33% success rate and half the success rate it registered in the rest of the country (66%).
In fact, the BJP was able to win only 19% of the Hindu vote in the South—compared to 68% in the North and 65% in central India.
The great debate: Fair representation or punishment?
Needless to say, the southern states are not thrilled at the idea of being marginalised in the Lok Sabha—and have been vociferously protesting in advance. Their logic: why should we lose political power for outperforming Hindi belt states in the north? Many of their leaders are already furious that the South is more prosperous—and yet receives a smaller share of the country’s tax kitty:
While their prosperity leads them to being taxed more - on a per-capita basis because they are less populous - they are given a relatively smaller share in the central transfer of taxes where the amount allocated is dependent on the population. Thus, they see themselves as being punished for their success.
The High Court argument: The most passionate case against the current delimitation logic was laid out by the Madras High Court. It waded into the debate in 2021—railing against the fact that Tamil Nadu lost two seats in the 1967 delimitation exercise. The Court proposed that Tamil Nadu should be compensated to the tune of Rs 56 billion (5,600 crore) for this injustice—and its number of Rajya Sabha seats ought to be increased.
The Court went even further to argue that population numbers are not a sound basis for delimitation:
Population control cannot be a factor to decide the number of political representatives of the States in the Parliament... States have been reorganised on linguistic basis as per the States Reorganisation Act, 1956. India is a multi-religious, multi-racial and multi-linguistic country. Therefore, the powers should be distributed equally and there should be a balance of powers.
But, but, but: The High Court’s logic upends that of democracy—which dictates that every citizen ought to be equally represented. Illiteracy, poverty or lack of family planning in a state cannot be legitimate reasons to violate the core rights of its residents. Today, a Malayali has more than 1.5X more representation than a Bihari in the Lok Sabha. And as Vaishnav and Hinston point out, delaying the delimitation isn’t going to make this go away:
The chronic unwillingness of India’s political class to reallocate parliamentary seats in light of the country’s changing demographics has led to severe and entrenched malapportionment. As long as India’s politicians defer tough decisions on the legislative seats India’s states deserve, the current crisis of representation will only deepen.
In fact, the 50-year delay has only ensured that the change will be shocking and far more painful.
The bottomline: Despite all the dire calculations, it is likely that the government will arrive at some kind of compromise—that doesn’t start a wildfire in the South. As Shoaib Daniyal notes:
[I]f states in the South see their seats fall in line with their population, it would result in significant political instability for the union. A Union government needs to not only have support in terms of votes but also geography: its democratic base can’t be concentrated in only a few areas.
Fair representation isn’t just about numbers.
The Print and Leaflet offer useful overviews of the history of delimitation. For the best discussions on the delimitation debate, check out Scroll and The Diplomat. Quint offers its own estimate on what the new Lok Sabha will look like. More useful—with charts and more analysis—is the Carnegie Endowment deep dive. BBC News is very good at charting the vast North-South divide in development and prosperity.