The Essence of Right to Vote in Indian Democracy

JBS Haldane, an eminent British biologist of 20th Century, who settled in India and later became Citizen of India towards the end of his life, when asked by an American Journalist about what makes him proud to be an India, he said, “I happen to be proud of being a citizen of India, which is a lot more diverse than Europe, let alone the USA, the USSR or China, and thus a better model for a possible world organisation. It may of course break up, but it is a wonderful experiment. So, I want to be labelled as a citizen of India”. Seven decades into becoming a republic and a democratic nation, India is a vibrant force across the globe with its diversity speaking of itself. In fact, the diversity itself is a cause of unity among Indians, and the right to vote in the Indian constitution has enshrined India’s diversity.

The wonderful experiment Haldane is talking about in his response to the journalist’s question is the Indian democracy. It is indeed a wonderful experiment because the founding fathers of the nation resolved to establish it in a nation which has none of its preconditions. They sought to democratise a country, no less than a continent, which accommodates a heterogeneous population of one out of every six people on the planet. It is the most revolutionary in all standards that we can think of if we look at world history. As historian Ramachandra Guha says, the Indian experiment “was the most recklessly ambitious political experiment in human history”. There is no example before India to guide its chosen trajectory. The Indian experience is most radical for another reason which is true even today: instead of breaking out from all the societal divisions and hierarchies, founding fathers aimed to create a democracy in India with all those hierarchies and destroy them from within through the process of nurturing of democracy. Jawaharlal Nehru reflected on this problem in his work ‘Discovery of India’ in 1946 – “Our major difficulties in India are due to the fact that we consider our problems—economic, social, industrial, agricultural, communal, Indian states—within the framework of existing conditions. Within that framework, and retaining the privileges and special status that are part of it, they become impossible of solution”. This process of thinking of democratisation within the existing conditions and changing the conditions from within is a radical idea. BR Ambedkar was also very conscious about this particular project and at one point, he claims Indian soil is undemocratic and it needs to be democratised with collective action. According to him, “Constitutional morality is not a natural sentiment. It has to be cultivated. We must realize that our people have yet to learn it. Democracy in India is only a top-dressing on an Indian soil which is essentially undemocratic”.

Settling on this proposition of democratising an undemocratic population, the constitution-makers begin to think about ways to do this project. To understand how the makers of the constitution reached a solution for this, it is useful to understand the idea of democracy in itself. Alexis de Tocqueville, one of the greatest historians of Democracy in America, pointed out that there is a natural attraction to the idea of democracy globally, despite its flaws. This is, on one hand, due to its potential to check the authoritarian and illegitimate forces that seek to coerce over people. On the other hand, democracies imbibe the spirit of participatory governance in the minds and hearts of the people. Nelson Mandela reflected on this quintessential nature of democracy in his autobiography ‘Long Walk to Freedom’. Describing a local meeting which he attended when he was young and when his country was still a colony, Mandela writes, “Everyone who wanted to speak did it. It was democracy in its purest form. There may have been a hierarchy of importance among the speakers, but everyone was heard, chief and subject, warrior and medicine man, shopkeeper and farmer, landowner and labourer. The foundation of self-government was that all men were free to voice their opinion and equal in their values as citizens”.

This makes it a natural idea which can be cultivated anywhere without any sufficient preconditions. It is only giving an expression to the individual self-worth by making them part of the governance system is what can make democracy possible. So, it won’t be an impossible task to create a democracy in India without its preconditions. The process is made easier in India when compared to other countries because India has a past experience with local democracies. According to Amartya Sen, to establish democracy in India is to make relevant “India’s ancient experiences in local democracy for the design of a large democracy for the whole of modern India”. So the central idea to democratise the India soil lies in affirming self-worth to all the individuals by allowing their voices to be heard in participatory governance. It is to synonymise the desire for democracy, as Political thinker Pratap Bhanu Mehta points out, with “a desire to have one’s moral worth acknowledged”.

It is clear that to establish a democracy, individual self-worth news to be acknowledged. In the Constituent Assembly, the debates were on how to affirm the self-worth. This is a tough question because the members of the assembly are dealing with a country which is divided and hierarchised based on caste, class, religion, gender, language and region. Any parameter for self-worth they settle upon must long till the end of the Republic of India. So it is a long term plan that has to be decided in a short span to accommodate all the diversities in India and empower the nation at the same time. Unless the self-worth of individuals is affirmed, any meaning of empowerment in an Indian setting would only mean to “power over others, some claim of power or privilege or access that sets you apart, rather than a sense of empowerment that all can share” because “ a society that is adept at humiliating its members is more likely to make them adept at humiliating others than teach them about justice”.

In debating over ways to affirm self-worth and accommodate diversities, the makers of the constitution settled over the idea to give ‘right to vote’ for all. It is striking to even believe that if the ‘right to vote’ has such a potential to fulfil all the objectives that are described above. But fascinatingly, in all respects, the equal voting rights that are given to Indian citizens ushered a tectonic transformative shift in Indian democracy. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to claim that the idea of ‘right to vote’ for all is a revolutionary idea which saved India from many revolutions within which could have torn the country apart. The idea of ‘one man, one vote’ has been effective in putting all the individuals equal in the eyes of the constitution and the power any one individual has in a democracy to influence the trajectory of governance.

Though there are objections in the constitution over giving voting rights to all citizens above a particular age, it is decided that any other restriction on voting will lead to failure of the project of democratisation in India. Ambedkar, whose political agenda was majorly focused on the annihilation of caste agreed to have no restrictions on right to vote. Members of the drafting committee, especially Ambedkar and Alladi Krishnaswamy Iyer argued that “qualifications based on education and property during colonial rule meant the de facto exclusion of the lower castes”. If such qualifications are kept in Independent India, then it will exclude large sections of the Indian population from the power to participate in governance and it will have a humiliating effect on the excluded sections. Ambedkar saw great potential in the right to vote to create changes in societal relationships. As legal scholar Madhav Khosla observes, ‘Ambedkar saw in the right to vote the power to regulate the terms on which one’s life would be lived with regard to others. To have such a right was to have the opportunity to determine the conditions on which interpersonal relationships would be directed. 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. Rather than enabling responsible government, suffrage restrictions were, therefore, a form of coercion’.

This was the objective behind giving the right to vote to all Indian citizens. It is not to suggest that the framers of the constitution denied or weren’t mindful of how this right could be misused. They were aware of the darker side of equal voting rights. But they made a significant trade-off. Democracy in India “has advanced through the competitive negotiations between groups, each competing for their interests, rather than the diffusion of democratic norms”. For India to survive as a democracy, all the competitive claims need to be accommodated and acknowledged, and not giving an edge to one party to overpower and humiliate others. In a condition where there are no channels available to resolve the competing interests, people will resolve to barbaric fights and revolutions. But giving the right to vote for all the people gave the competing interests a channel to represent their interest and that is through voting. Instead of mobilization to wage war and create violence, people are given a chance to vote to affirm self-worth and fulfil their competing interests. It could be said that through voting, framers of constitution found a beautiful point of a tradeoff between violence and nonviolence to accommodate competing interests. This is the rationale between the idea of ‘one man, one vote’. The living testimony to the success of this idea is the history of seven decades of Indian democracy.

Though democracy survived, the success of democracy could not be claimed just in being able to give the right to vote for all the citizens. Ramachandra Guha calls India a 50-50 democracy. (Of course, no nation can claim to be a perfect democracy and it is a work in progress for any nation.) While India has free and fair elections with good voting rights, there are several other aspects of democracy that India has to keep working on. Deep-seated flaws that continue to sustain till date – communism, communalism, corruption, crony capitalism, poverty, hunger, the weak criminal justice system, dalits and women, fragile health and education systems – must be addressed to make India a truly egalitarian society and a near perfect democracy. It is worthwhile to remember that, as Guha noted, “For Indians today may be more free than when the British left these shores, but they are surely less free than what the framers of our constitution hoped or wished them to be”.

-Rishvanth Reddy (Freelancer)

Picture: Representational Only (Credits –

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