We think of the right to vote as one of the most basic elements of a democratic citizenship: both essential and universal. But it wasn’t always like this. In the course of democratic evolution across the world, the right to vote was often withheld by political elites, who saw it as a weapon that could be used to bring about large-scale social reconstruction. For large parts of history, women, racial minorities, and property-less or poor people were routinely denied the vote, on the grounds that they could not be trusted to exercise it responsibly. As the historian Alexander Keyssar demonstrates in his magisterial book, The Right To Vote: The Contested History Of Democracy In The United States, universal adult suffrage in the US (for example) was gained incrementally, and after protracted (and often violent) political struggle. The story was the same in other Western democracies.
India, however, chose a very different path. The framing of the Constitution ushered in the principle of universal adult franchise in one swoop. From a situation where, under the colonial regime, only around 15% of Indians had (limited) voting rights, every adult was granted the right to vote. In a country that suffered from grinding levels of poverty and illiteracy, and continued to be riddled with caste, class and gender hierarchies, this was a truly radical move, and a leap of faith by the framers of the Constitution: no more the “waiting room of history” for Indians, who had been told repeatedly by the British that they were not mature enough to handle self-governance. India was to be a full-blooded democracy from the moment of its birth.
What was it that enabled such a transformative change to come about, as though it was the most natural thing in the world? From the very beginning, the protagonists of the freedom struggle, and the leaders of the Indian National Congress, had been clear that independent India would be founded on the principles of universal adult franchise: It was enshrined, for example, in the 1931 Karachi Resolution, a proto-constitutional document drafted by the Congress. But the responsibility for ensuring that the pledge of universal adult franchise was converted into constitutional reality was placed upon the shoulders of B.R. Ambedkar, the head of the Constitution’s drafting committee, and it is his role that proved to be crucial.
Early on in his political career, Ambedkar had recognized the importance of the right to vote. In 1919, he had been asked to give evidence before the Southborough committee, which was looking into designing representative institutions for (what was then) the Indian Dominion. In the course of his written submissions, Ambedkar observed that “the right of representation and the right to hold office under the State are the two most important rights that make up citizenship”. He then went on to address the argument that the franchise granted to the “Untouchables” should be restricted because of their degraded status in society. While admitting the fact, Ambedkar turned the argument on its head: It was precisely because of what had been done to them that “it would be better to pitch the franchise so low as to educate into political life as many untouchables as possible”.
Ambedkar’s arguments, therefore, were based on two principles: First, that voting was essential to citizenship and to equal moral membership of the polity; and second, that voting could serve as a means of political education for those who had been denied any part of political and social life for all these years, and as a tool to “remove the evil conditions” that existed.
It was these two principles that formed the backbone of universal adult franchise becoming part of the Constitution. As the chairman of the drafting committee, it was Ambedkar who inserted Article 326 into the Constitution, which provided that elections would be held on the basis of universal adult franchise. It was also Ambedkar who drafted a narrowly-defined set of qualifications and disqualifications for standing for electoral office, which were carefully restricted to procedural restrictions such as a minimum age, or restrictions concerned with maintaining the integrity of the electoral process, such as soundness of mind. When these provisions were debated, Ambedkar made it clear that they did not contemplate the kinds of invidious discrimination that had hitherto excluded individuals from voting or standing, such as property qualifications.
The decision to enshrine universal adult franchise into the Constitution was not free from controversy. H.V. Kamath, a member of the constituent assembly, expressed the view that in a country with such high levels of illiteracy, universal franchise was a dangerous thing and ought to be restricted. Other members of the assembly supported him. Kamath, however, was unable to carry the House, which was keenly aware of the historical nature of what it was attempting.
As constituent assembly member Alladi Krishnaswamy Ayyar observed: “...in spite of the ignorance and illiteracy of the large mass of the Indian people, the Assembly has adopted the principle of adult franchise with an abundant faith in the common man and the ultimate success of democratic rule and in the full belief that the introduction of democratic government on the basis of adult suffrage will bring enlightenment and promote the well-being, the standard of life, the comfort and the decent living of the common man.... This Assembly deserves to be congratulated on adopting the principle of adult suffrage and it may be stated that never before in the history of the world has such an experiment been so boldly undertaken.”
Underlying these words were, of course, the principles that Ambedkar had voiced before the Southborough committee a few decades ago: that ultimately, democratic government was inseparable from the right to vote, and it was voting that would prove to be (one of) the harbinger(s) of political education.
As we approach yet another general election, the disquieting news of mass deletions from voter rolls that have disproportionately affected the most vulnerable and marginalized of society, presents a grave threat to the “bold experiment” that we embarked upon seven decades ago. In this time, we would do well to remember Ambedkar’s principles.
Gautam Bhatia is a Delhi-based lawyer. His most recent book is The Transformative Constitution: A Radical Biography In Nine Acts.