Too much democracy, did you say?

Too much democracy, did you say?

Are economic reforms in India being slowed down by “too much democracy”? NITI Aayog CEO Amitabh Kant seemed to say so in a seminar. Following a social media firestorm, Kant put out a piece in a newspaper that what he really meant was that India could not mirror China’s policies because we are a democracy, and professing his love for this democracy.

The point of this column is not to quibble with Kant. Independent India’s single greatest achievement has been the universal suffrage guaranteeing every adult citizen the right to vote and choose their government. India’s democracy is a marvel precisely because of its size and diversity – and no other country even dared to take the leap to universal suffrage overnight. Though elections had taken place during British rule, under the 1935 Government of India Act, only about one in six Indians were even eligible to vote. Yet, the Constituent Assembly took the brave call to guarantee every adult Indian the right to vote.

The move was not without its doubters. Though the Objectives Resolution moved by Jawaharlal Nehru, which laid the framework for the Indian Constitution, stated very clearly that “all power and authority of the Sovereign Independent India, its constituent parts and organs of government, are derived from the people”, this didn’t mean that all members were immediately convinced this meant universal suffrage was necessary or good. Even within the Constituent Assembly, members questioned the wisdom of the move.

Two prominent voices who questioned the need for universal suffrage were Hriday Nath Kunzru and Frank Anthony. These two members, who in their other interventions in the Assembly had appealed for greater protection of civil rights and minorities and for limiting the powers of the government, seemed hesitant to sign on to the idea of universal suffrage. Both proceeded on the basis that while universal suffrage was desirable, perhaps it ought to be realised in a phased manner, as had been done in the UK. Both worried about how a population with low levels of literacy would choose their leaders and participate in policy debates to make the best choices instead of being driven by caste and communal considerations. In somewhat dense and arcane English, Anthony put it thus:

“As it is, I am one of those who can only express the very sincere hope that...this electorate will not be stampeded by empty slogans by meretricious shibboleths into chasing political chimeras which will not only lead to chaos but to the very destruction of the democracy which we have chosen to give them.”

In simple words, he worried that people would be swayed by the empty slogans of a demagogue and end up destroying democracy in India.

The paternalism in these remarks are obvious, as also the blindness to history. White, propertied men in Britain never intended for everyone to be allowed to vote -- until women fought a long, hard and bitter battle for it. The very same illiterate and uneducated people Kunzru and Anthony disparaged had fearlessly taken part in the freedom struggle for decades prior.

In the closing stages of the debate on the Constitution, P Subbarayan from Madras responded to the anxieties over universal suffrage in a short, pithy intervention:

“Some people seem to have fears about adult franchise. It must not be forgotten that even today, most of the voters under the franchise that obtains today are themselves illiterate. But the Indian humanity is such that they have enough common-sense, enough horse-sense, if I may say so, which will make it possible for them to choose their rulers with discrimination, and to choose the people whom they think would be able to carry on the administration in a manner which will be for the benefit of the common man, of whom we have talked so much in this House.”

At the core of the idea of universal suffrage is the belief that not just every vote is valuable but that every person is capable of making her own decisions. And that these decisions deserve respect and acceptance even if the elites may disagree with them.

Seventy years is not enough to fully understand the electric effect that universal suffrage had on the minds of people living with centuries of inequality and discrimination. The polling booth was the one place where the landless was equal to the landowner, the worker with the boss, and a woman with a man. It was perhaps the first tangible brush with equality for most Indians, and one that they have come to cherish. For those who have nothing, the vote is the most valuable thing they have, and democracy the one thing they can’t have enough of.