Earlier this month, results of a nationwide referendum in Russia on certain constitutional proposals were announced. The proposals aimed to extend the term of the Russian President, ban same-sex marriages and more. Referendums are typically instituted to allow citizens to directly decide on a specific issue(s). Brexit infamously was an outcome of a referendum.
Notwithstanding Arvind Kejriwal’s demand for a referendum on Delhi’s statehood, referendums have never really been part of India’s political or constitutional discourse. Mainly because India’s constitution does not mention them. However, proposals to include such a provision came up multiple times in the Constituent Assembly. By far the most ardent advocate for referendums was the socialist and economist K.T. Shah.
During a discussion around Article 3, Shah moved an amendment that required any proposal to alter existing boundaries of a state to only originate in the legislature of the affected State. He actually wanted something else but felt that the Assembly would not accept:
'...I personally would advocate a direct Referendum rather than merely a vote of the Legislature, but lest the suggestion of a referendum sound too revolutionary to be entertained by a respectable House..'
This did not stop Shah from continuing to push for referendums. He wanted the President of India to have the power to ‘. .conduct and supervise any Referendum that may be decided upon to make to the Sovereign People in accordance with this Constitution’. Further, he wanted Article 111 (Assent of Bills) to incorporate referendums. The Assembly rejected both proposals.
Shah was not alone. During discussions around Article 101, H.V. Kamath proposed that voters should have a right to recall their representatives if they found them incompetent. Realizing that this implied a referendum, R.K Sidhwa responded to Kamath by saying ‘…that is not possible, that is nowhere workable..’.
The Assembly rejected all proposals that wanted to introduce referendums and predictably Shah was not pleased:
'…Several suggestions had been brought forward at the proper movement regarding, for instance, the right to consult the people by means of a Referendum, or the power of the people to initiate radical legislation to make the Constitution really democratic. But they have been all negatived...'
Shah equated referendums with ‘power of the people’ and democratic legitimacy. But it appears that this type of democracy did not resonate with the Assembly. The Assembly had explicitly chosen representative democracy in which people’s representatives decided on questions, not people themselves. As Tandon pointed out (in a slightly different context) referendums can impede representative democracy and diminish its legitimacy.
It is also quite plausible that Assembly members viewed referendums as impractical in light of India’s population and size, and posed immense administrative and logistical challenges.