In less than a week’s time, the people of India, irrespective of their caste, creed, education or income, like they have done 16 times before, will elect members to the Lok Sabha. This is made possible by the Constitution of India, 1950 that encodes the principle of universal adult franchise. This principle was denied to Indians during British rule, chiefly by the Government of India Acts of 1919 and 1935, two critical pieces of British legislation that governed colonial India. Under these Acts, only those who satisfied certain criteria that included income, property and education could vote for members of the provincial and central legislatures. On average, only 3-10% of the Indian population were allowed to exercise their franchise. For decades, most Indians had no voice in elections.
A significant strand of the Indian freedom movement was centred around demands for universal adult franchise. We find this articulated in most Indian historical constitutions, the earliest of which was the Constitution of India Bill 1895 that gave every citizen ‘a right to give one vote for electing a member to the Parliament of India and one local Legislative Council’.
Moving into the early 20th century, two significant historical constitutions did not fully echo the 1895 Bill. The first, Lucknow Pact 1916, authored jointly by the Indian National Congress and the Muslim League, called for ‘as broad a franchise as possible’. The second, Commonwealth Bill 1925, drafted by a consortium of Indian political groups, provided for a limited franchise: voting rights were subject to criteria that resembled British legalisation - education, land and income. It is plausible that these historical constitutions were informed by political pragmatism: they were aimed to, among other things, persuade the British to provide for greater involvement of Indians in government. An aggressive demand for full adult franchise would have led the British to not show up at the negotiating table altogether.
Towards the end of the 1920s however, things changed radically. Calls for greater levels of self-government within the British Empire – dominion status, transformed into calls for ‘Purna Swaraj’ or 'complete freedom'. Indian leaders now declared that India should be governed by a Constitution written by Indians, and this Constitution would unequivocally provide universal adult franchise. The Nehru Report 1928 stated that ‘Every person of either sex who has attained the age of 21, and is not disqualified by law, shall be entitled to vote’. The Karachi Resolution 1931 argued that any Constitution of India must contain ‘adult suffrage’
In the years leading up to the setting up of the Constituent Assembly, more Indian historical constitutions like the Gandhian Constitution of Free India 1946, Ambedkar's States and Minorities 1945, and the Sapru Report 1945, provided for universal adult franchise. In 1946, the Cabinet Mission Plan recognised the principle as the ideal mode of electing members to the Constituent Assembly. But it felt that implementing universal adult franchise would ‘unacceptably delay’ the setting up of the Assembly. And so, Assembly members ended up being elected indirectly – by members of the recently elected provincial legislatures.
These indirectly elected Assembly members did not lose sight of universal adult suffrage. When it came to the topic of elections, the Assembly’s Sub-committee on Fundamental Rights was firm that universal adult suffrage must be guaranteed by the Constitution and proceeded to draft provisions to this effect. In about 2 years, the final constitution of India 1950, in Part 15, through Article 326 stated explicitly stated - Elections to the House of the People and to the Legislative Assemblies of States to be on the basis of adult suffrage. A year later, between October 1951 and March 1952, 17 crore Indians, for the first time in Indian political and constitutional history, came out and voted for independent India’s first Lok Sabha based on universal adult franchise.
In the next post in this series, we will look a strand of the deliberations of the Assembly on the Election Commission of India.