At the fag end of the Indian constitution-making project, just before the Constituent Assembly was about to adopt the Constitution, Assembly members had the chance to reflect on the constitution-making process, and say what they liked and disliked about the Constitution. Members spoke on some key features, and adult franchise was one of them. In these speeches, we get a sense of the motivations behind the framers for adopting adult franchise and their responses to critics of the principle.
Krishna Sharma viewed the adoption of adult franchise as a rejection of monarchy. In the old days, law-making represented the will of a single man or a few men, not the people. Sharma felt that ‘…because we have adult suffrage, our legislature will express the will of the nation as a whole. For Sharma, adult franchise gave meaning to and put into practice the opening lines of the Constitution: ‘We the people…’.
While critics claimed that education and the enlightenment of the masses was a prerequisite for adult franchise, Alladi Krishnaswami Ayyar turned their argument on its head: he felt that adult franchise could lead to education and enlightenment. He said that caveating voting rights with property or educational qualifications would disenfranchise most Indians and ‘would be a negation of the principles of democracy’. Further, he rejected the idea only educated individuals could make proper use of the vote.
Those who supported the adult franchise in the Assembly tended to speak about it a lofty, grand and self-praising manner. This seemed to irk Kamlapati Tiwari. She argued that the demand for the adult franchise had always been a significant strand of the freedom movement, and so it was more or less a given that the Assembly would adopt it. Second, she said that the idea of adult franchise being integral to democracy has been gaining ground in the world, and the Indian adoption of the principle was nothing novel. There was really no other alternative for the Assembly, she argued, and asked members -
‘If we had not provided adult franchise what else could we have provided for? We have not done such a thing as may justify our self-praise. We accepted a well-recognised principle and have done but our elementary duty.’
Upendranath Barma invoked adult franchise to distinguish the Constitution from that other constitutional documents that played a key role in Indian constitution and political life – particularly the Government of India Act 1935. A common criticism of the Constitution in the Assembly was that it was really just a copy of the Act. Barman reminded Assembly members that while this may be partly true, in reality, the Constitution of India diverged from the Act in radical ways. And one of these points of divergence was adult franchise -
‘The 1935 Act gives power to the masses only to a certain extent... But tomorrow when this Constitution will come into play and throughout the length and breath of this country the masses of the country who form 85 per cent. of the population of India will have the final say or a greater say in electing our legislatures…’
Whether the adoption of adult franchise was novel and worth of self-praise or not, this constitutional choice that the Assembly made was historic and a critical inflection point in the political, social and constitutional history of India.