The demand for the right to vote was only a part of a comprehensive package of measures to emancipate the masses from poverty, exploitation and oppression

In the run-up to the polls to elect India’s 16th Lok Sabha, pages from the freedom struggle provide some background on why the ballot remains the bedrock of our democracy. It may also tell us something about the reasons why, despite the robust expansion and protection of the practice of political equality, socio-economic inequalities are allowed to persist in post-independence India.

Paradoxically, the Constitution that enshrined universal adult suffrage in the world’s largest democracy was drafted by a Constituent Assembly that was composed of members elected by restricted franchise. But then, the demand for universal adult suffrage had been gathering momentum for some decades before independence. The Motilal Nehru report on a draft constitution for free India advocated unlimited adult franchise and equal rights for women. The resolution of the 1931 Karachi session of the Indian National Congress regarded the affirmation of political equality, encapsulated in the notion of universal adult franchise, as fundamental to the future of Purna Swaraj or total independence. Britain had removed the remaining arbitrary restrictions on the exercise of the vote for adults only recently, in 1928. The principle of one man one vote galvanised large sections of the youth behind the anti-colonial struggle. A vindication was the overwhelming victory of the Congress in the 1937 provincial elections, held under limited suffrage based on income and education.

Free India enacted a succession of measures to make the electoral process more participatory, inclusive and transparent from the very first general election of 1952. Foremost among them was the casting of votes by joint electorates to choose representatives from the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes for the Lok Sabha and the State Assemblies. To be sure, there have been recurrent instances in recent years of intimidation of candidates and voters belonging to disadvantaged communities. This scenario, if anything, underscores the need to persist with the policy of reserving a proportion of electoral constituencies as a prerequisite to ensuring adequate representation for them.

Adapting a Westminster style of democracy to domestic conditions called for devising a simple and intelligible medium for political parties to appeal to a predominantly non-literate voting population. The introduction by the Election Commission, of ballots as well as drop boxes that bear symbols to denote different political parties to voters achieved this end admirably. The most recent measure to empower voters to express a negative opinion against candidates is a further advance in terms of evolving a more transparent election process.

Equally, there are elaborate formalities enjoined upon people’s representatives and concomitantly upon the political parties they belong to. The stipulation to furnish information on the conduct of internal party elections may be seen as an explicit expression of the commitment to democratic principles at various levels.

Curtailing political defections

The once rampant practice of political defections, that had a detrimental effect on the representative character of popular elections, has been considerably curtailed in recent years. A legislator is now disqualified from membership of a house when he voluntarily gives up membership of a political party, as per the Constitution 52nd Amendment Act. He also forfeits membership when he votes or abstains from voting contrary to the direction of his party.

Recognition of a merger only when backed by at least two-thirds of a legislative party, under the 91st Constitutional Amendment Act, is a further curb on political defections. At the same time, the provision to approve the formation of a new party by some legislators, as well as to allow others not to accept the merger and opt to function as a separate group are important protections of the basic democratic principle of political dissent.

In the context of the 2014 election, it may be relevant to recall that the right to universal adult franchise was not an isolated demand put forward in the 1931 Karachi session of the INC. The proposal was in fact part of a comprehensive package of measures seen as crucial to emancipate the masses from poverty, exploitation and oppression; and thus give substance to the idea of self-rule.

The pledge included the provision of free and compulsory primary education, a living wage, the prohibition of child labour, the promotion of trade union rights and many others. The spirit of the Karachi resolution may be reflected in the constitution of independent India. But the substantial features are mere entries in the non-justiciable directive principles of state policy.

Among them, the goal of realising free and compulsory education within a decade of the commencement of the new Constitution was elevated as a fundamental right in 2002. It was another seven years when an enabling law was enacted in 2009 to guarantee elementary education free of cost for children in the age group of 6-14 years. The employment of children below the age of 14 years was declared a cognisable offence just a year ago, following an amendment to the original law of 1986 on the prohibition of child labour.

Although the law on minimum wages came into force in 1948, the concept of a National Floor Level Minimum Wage was adopted only in 1991. The NFLMW is still neither universally applied, nor is it a statutory provision. Finally, the landmark 2011 report of the High Level Empowered Group constituted by the Planning Commission has recommended the provision of a fully state-funded universal public health care. Many of these measures were initiated after pressure from advocacy and voter groups.

There are, admittedly, many pitfalls in the current electoral system. Its susceptibility to advance narrow and sectarian ends; not to mention the not so insignificant limitations of the first-past-the-post method of election. With the benefit of hindsight however, it is obvious that the franchise remains the fulcrum of Indian democracy. While we may feel justified pride in the relative stability of our democratic institutions, it is time some of these challenges were addressed urgently.

garimella.subramaniam@thehindu.co.in

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