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Mainstream, VOL 62 No 16-17, April 20, April 27, 2024

2024 Lok Sabha Elections: Moral and Ethical Demand of the Power of the Ballot - An appeal for conscience Voting | Vijay Kumar

Saturday 20 April 2024, by Vijay Kumar


The seven-phase long-winding electoral process has got underway with the election of the first phase on 19th April. The significance of the ballot is captured in matchless style by Winston Churchill in the following words:

“At the bottom of all tributes paid to democracy is the little man, walking into a little booth, with a little pencil, making a little cross on a little bit of paper — no amount of rhetoric or voluminous discussion can possibly diminish the overwhelming importance of the point.”

Though ballot is substituted by electronic voting machine, the power of metaphor still resonates.

The introduction of universal adult suffrage in the Indian Constitution was the most daring enactment by the framers of the Indian Constitution.“One Person, One Vote and One Vote, one value” was quite astonishing in a country, left poor and ravaged by the colonial exploitation. Apart from an extremely high level of illiteracy, the tradition and society were notorious for patriarchal and hierarchal social order. No wonder, many constitutional mavens termed this bold experiment as a gamble. One of the tallest constitutional scholars of England, Sir Ivor Jennings, who drafted the Cylon’s (now Sri Lanka) Constitution around same time, ridiculed the framing of the Indian Constitution, especially its prolixity. On the other hand, another great constitutional scholar of England, Kenneth.C. Wheare, commented that “Framing of the Constitution was the biggest liberal experiment in government of men by themselves that has ever been tried”.

In advanced countries, the right to universal adult franchise was expanded in a gradual manner spanning almost more than a century. For instance, the United State Constitution conferred the right to vote to women in 1918 when 19th Constitutional Amendment was passed, and blacks were given the right to vote only in 1960s after the enactment of the Civil Right Act. In England, initially, the right to vote was conferred only on white males, and that too, on the basis of property. The women were given the right to adult suffrage only in 1928.

But the skeptical were proved wrong when India conducted its first general election under the deft stewardship of Sukumar Sen, the first Election Commissioner of India. The trust reposed in poor and illiterate by the framer of the Constitution stood vindicated. After the first general election, the next most significant election was the 1977 general election, held in the wake of a phoney and traumatic emergency. The Indian democracy proved to be resilient when Indira Gandhi was not only voted out of power but she lost her own seat. The ordinary voters, through the exercise of the right to vote, humbled the most powerful person of the country – a person fawningly adulated by slogan, “India is Indira and Indira is India”. This is the power of the ballot that sustains democracy. After the 1977 general election, the current general election is the most notable for the future trajectory of Indian democracy. On the one side is the incumbent NDA, dominated by the BJP, and the other side is INDIA, led by the debilitated Congress. The cheap shots and one-liners are being fired from both sides, and the tone and tenors of leaders of both camps are becoming shriller and shriller. In fact, the Prime Minister, Modi is himself in the forefront in spewing out venom bordering on hatred against the Muslim community. In this alarmingly polarized scenario, this column seeks to make a fervent appeal for ‘conscience voting’.

“Popular Sovereignty’ vis-à-vis cult of personality

The NDA and BJP are relying solely on the charisma of its leader, the Prime Minister, Narendra Modi. In fact, in a burlesque parody of “India is Indira and Indira is India”, the image of the Prime Minister is being projected as higher than law and the constitution----- indeed even higher than the country. On the other hand, there is no leader from the opposite camp who can match with Modi. This, however, raises another important question of compatibility between the cult of personality and ‘popular sovereignty’. ‘Popular sovereignty’ is one of the defining ingredients of democracy. Understood thus, the absence of any tall leader and disparate nature of alliance amongst the INDIA groups are not antithetical to democracy. If sovereignty, meant to be shared by all, is the lifeline of democracy; so is the idea of shared leadership. In fact, investing too much in cult of personality subvert the democracy. The impersonal rule and it’s robust enforcement by the genuinely independent public institution is cardinal attribute of Rule of Law. Thus, depersonalization of power and decision through intense debate and informed deliberation are more conducive to democracy. This danger of personality- cult was apprehended by Dr. Ambedkar, the main architect of the Indian Constitution, in his last speech on 25th November, 1949, the penultimate day of the three-year marathon functioning of the Constituent Assembly in which he made the following prescient observations :

“The second thing we must do is to observe the caution which John Stuart Mill has given to all who are interested in the maintenance of democracy, namely, not “to lay their liberties at the feet of even a great man, or to trust him with powers which enable him to subvert their institutions.” There is nothing wrong in being grateful to great men who have rendered life-long services to the country. But there are limits to gratefulness. As has been well said by the Irish Patriot Daniel O’connel, no man can be grateful at the cost of his honour, no women can be grateful at the cost of her chastity and no nation can be grateful at the cost of its liberty. This caution is far more necessary in the case of India than in the case of any other country. For in India, Bhakti or what may be called the path of devotion or hero-worship, plays a part in its politics unequalled in magnitude by the part it plays in the politics of any other country in the world. Bhakti in religion may be a road to the salvation of the soul. But in politics, Bhakti or hero-worship is a sure road to degradation and to eventual dictatorship.”

Tragically, the warning of Dr.Ambedkar has proved to be prophetic with fateful implications for democracy.

Single identity vis-à-vis multiple identities

Indian society is known for its mind-boggling pluralism and diversities, and this has strengthened the Indian democracy. The multiple identities and many voices are characterized as “Polypolitanism” by the Harvard University philosopher, Danielle Allen. Every Indian, and for that matter every person residing in other parts of the world, has multiple identities. In my village in Bihar, I am identified predominantly by my caste. In my home at Patna, I am further known by the district where I belong from. In Delhi, I am identified by my State. Apart from identity as a caste, I am also identified by my religion. But all these identities get relegated on the backburner by my predominant professional identity as a lawyer. This is true with other citizens. Likewise, doctors and other professionals are known by their professional identities rather than their caste and religion. Similarly, public servants, government employees and other persons working in private sectors are normally identified through their job profiles. So are the artists, filmmakers, singers, musicians, writers, poets and others of their ilk who are identified by their oeuvres. The problem, however, arises when one identity is privileged over all other identities. To put it differently, if one’s caste, or one’s religion is treated as a sole identity and other identities are ignored, what becomes a casualty, in the process, are many voices and many identities one has. Lesson from this is that ascriptive criteria, in form of caste and religion, should not become the factor for casting his/her vote.

India is too vast, populous and diverse, and the task of governance is so complex and challenging that casting vote on ascriptive category of caste and religion will be an instance of extremely irresponsible exercise of right to adult suffrage. There are many issues ranging from unemployment, to inflation, to unconscionable rise of inequality in recent times, marked by shocking, disgusting and revolting fact of 1% Indian owning 40% wealth of the country, to denial of free education and basic health care to poor, to pollution, to water crisis, to agrarian distress and, finally, climate crisis leading to global warming that need to be addressed through public participation and shared commitment. This demands the most exacting level of power of discernment and discrimination, and one can not discern and discriminate in the absence of ethical responsibility and morality. The ethics implies the exercise of power with fullest sense of responsibility, whereas morality postulates that one should think in terms of welfare of others. The right to adult suffrage is most precious right in democracy, and therefore, has to be exercised with utmost ethical responsibility. The right to vote desiderates the summoning of the demanding will power to go beyond one’s narrow identity and interest and thinks in terms of entire nation, and i ardently hope and avidly wish that Indian voters will live up to this moral and ethical responsibility.

(Author: Vijay Kumar, Senior Advocate, Supreme Court of India. The author of a recent book : “The Theory of Basic Structure: Saviour of the Constitution and Democracy”)

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