Article 326 of the Indian Constitution states there every citizen of India who is not less than 18 years of age shall be entitled to be registered as a voter. The Constitution or any law made by the Parliament such as Representation of Peoples’ Act can restrict a citizen to be a registered as a voter only on the grounds of ‘non-residence, unsoundness of mind, crime or corrupt or illegal practices’. But before the Constitution was enacted there were several reservations against Article 326 of the Constitution. In this article, the author will analyse the reasons which made the founding fathers choose a universal adult franchise over the limited franchise.
India’s History and the Committee Reports
When India attained independence in August 1947, the citizens were lacking basic standards of education and literacy. They were divided broadly into different classes, linguistic and religious groups. Ivor Jennings, a constitutional thinker, advised that India must create a limited franchise. Even the Report on Indian Constitutional Reform of 1918 recommended what Ivor Jennings advised- a limited franchise. It was in 1930 that the Report on Indian Statutory Commission recommended ‘an extension of the vote to correspond to growth in adult literacy. This was a colonial logic which was based on the assumption that only the educated masses can vote in a democracy. Even the Report of the Indian Franchise Committee which was published in 1932 recommended that uneducated and illiterate masses don’t have an informed ‘outlook towards public affairs and political participation’.
The Indian organisations such as the Indian National Congress and the Muslim League were mostly divided on issues of power in the colonial administration. It was the Motilal Nehru Committee of 1928 which responded to the Commission reports by demanding a Universal Franchise for free India. The logic of the Committee report was that the exclusion of those who are kept out of franchise will be harmed and they might ‘de-legitimise’ the democratically elected government as well because those in power will not be their ‘own‘ representatives. Even the Sapru Committee in 1945 advocated for Universal Adult Franchise. The Sapru Committee observed that the substantial changes can be made only if there is full responsibility accredited to the government. There must be a fear of getting voted out from power. If those in power will know that a certain section of the society will not decide their fate in the next election, then they will not work for the welfare of that section as those citizens are denied voting rights. Hence, the ‘Indian’ committees recommended for Universal Franchise as opposed to the committees made by the Englishmen.
De Facto exclusion of Lower Caste
During the colonial period and even before that, the citizens belonging to the so-called lower castes were not allowed to attain education and they were forced to do odd-jobs. Education was for the elite and the ‘upper castes’. Dr B.R. Ambedkar aware of this fact pressed for inclusion of lower caste in the franchise as ‘qualifications based on education and property during colonial rule meant the de facto exclusion of the lower caste’. For Ambedkar, who negotiated with the colonial rulers, right to vote became a focal point as he believed that ‘suffrage could itself serve an instructive role and that participation in political life would bring about consciousness among the lower castes’. As L.T. Hobhouse says in his work 1911 text Liberalism that “the success of democracy depends on the response of the voters to the opportunities given to them. But, conversely, the opportunities must be given in order to call forth that response”. To Ambedkar, the right to vote was not a privilege but a right! He believed that if it is treated as a privilege then “political emancipation of the un-enfranchised will be entirely at the mercy of those that are enfranchised”. For ‘lower caste’, first, education was denied and then, the franchise was denied because of education. Hence, if education was kept as a criterion then it would have been erroneous and arbitrary.
Participatory Democracy and Adult Franchise
As Madhav Khosla in his book says “the apparent relationship between restrictions in the franchise and good governance had little truth”. A Parliament without any reform that is to say the inclusion of all sections of society is “not a blessing to anyone”. Democracy and participation are like Vikram and Betaal, where ‘democracy is solely about the expression of preferences at the ballot box’. Participation in an election is equivalent to the removal of isolation of a person because when a person casts her vote, she feels that her voice is being heard and she is there in the law-making process (through her representative) which will be governing her behaviour in a democratic society. ‘If democracy was about shaping the associations in one’s life, a limitation on suffrage would place the lower classes under the control of the powerful. It would mean that such classes would be deprived of the chance to shape interactions in their life.’ Putting limitations on suffrage is a form of coercion on someone’s right.
Some members of the constituent assembly, like Thirumala Rao, considered universal adult franchise as ‘a dangerous weapon’ and Mahavir Tyagi considered it a ‘monstrous experiment’. K.T. Shah, a celebrated personality in the Assembly, stated that imposition of literacy as a requirement for the franchise would ‘ensure better governance’. But such a model will discourage the government from creating and spreading education and literacy among the illiterate classes as those classes might vote-out the government in the future elections if their demands are not met.
The Assembly ignored the idea of the limited franchise. The founding fathers chose universal adult franchise over limited franchise giving every citizen (who is above 18 years of age) a Right to Vote. A citizen has a right to express her opinion at the ballot box after every five years and choose their representatives. It is the most celebrated rights in the Indian Constitution which allow the marginalised and the ill-treated communities to choose the fate of their leaders. The country chose to tackle the issues of illiteracy among others by universal adult franchise!
[The author would like to thank Professor Madhav Khosla for his book “India’s Founding Moment: The Constitution of a Most Surprising Democracy” and the single quotes used in this article are from his book only.]