On Sunday, the nation marked the 60th anniversary of the first sitting of its Parliament on May 13, 1952.
This is the time to remember the vision of its founding fathers, for whom democracy — unlike for those today who rarely vote, but get all the air time to denigrate the institution of Parliament and elected people's representatives — was an act of faith.
Moreover, they were clear that democracy meant universal adult suffrage and direct elections not just at the village or district Panchayat, but the highest levels of government. And the electorate had to include everyone, irrespective of community, class or educational attainment. To have projected that vision then — for a country of largely illiterate villagers — was nothing short of revolutionary.
STRUGGLE ALL THE WAY
On 23 October, 1928, when even the most advanced Western nations were still struggling with the idea, Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, appearing before the Indian Statutory Commission (which came to be better known as Simon Commission), said he would like universal adult franchise for elections to be incorporated in the future Constitution of India.
The right to vote, at that time, was granted only to the rich, the landed and the tax payers. Dr Ambedkar, however, envisioned that elections were a weapon in the hands of the most oppressed sections of society for demanding politico-legal equality for the oppressed. Thus, while demanding reserved seats for Scheduled Castes — then referred to as Untouchables — he insisted upon franchise for criminal and hills tribes also.
What is more, he opposed the nomination of certain classes into legislative assemblies, which included the Untouchables too, as was the norm of that period.
In his strong defence of universal adult franchise, Dr Ambedkar laid to rest the argument of illiteracy: “My feeling is that every man is intelligent enough to understand exactly what he wants. Literacy has not much bearing on this point; a man may be illiterate, none the less he may be very intelligent.”
The deliberations later involved the Indian National Congress, which was represented at the Round Table Conferences in the early 1930s by Mahatma Gandhi. Dr Ambedkar, on his part, failed to convince the British to delimit the franchise.
In the subsequent decade, while piloting the new Constitution in the Constituent Assembly, Dr Ambedkar once again catapulted his vision of universal adult franchise. But this time too, even without the British being in the picture, there was no easy sailing for the idea. It was found so radical that Sardar Vallabhai Patel, who headed the Assembly's Advisory Committee on Fundamental Rights, expressed apprehensions that the States may not agree to it and would even view it encroaching upon their rights.
Dr. Ambedkar, however, steadfastly stuck to his position of the right to vote being a fundamental right. In his words, “franchise is principal thing of the Constitution” and, thereby, the essence of democracy. He also warned that the Assembly members, in their anxiousness to somehow bring States on board, should not compromise on basic principles such as universal adult franchise.
It all culminated in the Indian voters — irrespective of their literacy, caste and religious status, whether man or woman, landed or landless labourer, and tax payer or pauper — queuing up to cast their paper ballot (sometimes two or three ballots in multi-member constituencies) in the long drawn elections in 1951-52 to the Parliament and State Assemblies.
The country's highest Panchayat or the House of People — later rechristened the Lok Sabha on May 14, 1954 — met for the first time on May 13, 1952. Over the next 60 years, the House has been constituted 15 times, with its members being directly elected by the people of India. Over time, the composition of the members has also changed to more or less reflect the proportions of their communities in the total population. That includes those belonging to the erstwhile Untouchables and most backward sections of society.
The credit for all this goes to the founding fathers of Indian Democracy, foremost of them being Dr Ambedkar and Jawaharlal Nehru. The latter, like Dr Ambedkar, was a true modernist who subscribed to the broad principles of liberal Western democracy. But Nehru did not participate in any of the Round Table Conferences, which went into every detail of constitution making. Nor was he a part of the Poona Pact negotiations in 1932 to consider special representation for the Untouchables.
The fundamentals of democratic principles such as adult franchise and reservation for the Scheduled Castes/Tribes in political representation were fine tuned to the Indian social reality and conditions ultimately only by Dr Ambedkar.
At the end of sixty years, what one needs is a re-commitment to the principles of democracy, fair play and representation to the most deprived sections of Indian society enshrined in our Constitution; this is to be safeguarded by the highest body representing its people: The Parliament.
(The author is an IAS officer. Views expressed are personal.)