Chief Justice of India (CJI) D Y Chandrachud said on Friday every form of "elite understanding" of the democratic process that educated people are better decision-makers must be rejected.
He said the concept of universal adult franchise is linked to the idea of participatory democracy and individuals, whom the society has "despised" as being uneducated, have shown tremendous political acumen and awareness of local problems, which even the educated may not understand.
He was delivering the 8th Dr L M Singhvi Memorial Lecture on the theme "Universal Adult Franchise: Translating India's Political Transformation into a Social Transformation" here at an event where Vice President Jagdeep Dhankhar was the chief guest. The CJI said the introduction of universal adult franchise was a revolutionary act at a time when such a right had only recently been extended to women, people of colour, and the working-class in supposedly "mature" western democracies.
"In this sense, our Constitution was a feminist document, as well as an egalitarian socially transformative document. It was a break from the colonial and pre-colonial legacy, the boldest move adopted by the Constitution that was truly a product of Indian imagination," he said.
Besides Dhankhar and the CJI, Rajya Sabha MP and senior advocate A M Singhvi, Founding Vice Chancellor of O P Jindal Global University Prof C Raj Kumar also addressed the gathering.
The CJI said universal adult franchise was a solid determination of India's founding leaders to create a democratic state, however, the translation of the right to vote being bestowed upon citizens and its realisation has not been a simple journey.
He said preparation of the first electoral roll was also a "momentous task", as the majority of the population (86 per cent) was illiterate and the new Republic of India was grappling with the horrors of partition, war and famine.
Justice Chandrachud said the Election Commission of India at that time had innovated with outreach campaigns and the poll panel now has, on multiple occasions, set up polling booths for a single voter.
"In the same vein, the plight of the migrant workers must be considered, who most often are unable to effectively cast their vote in their constituency. Most migrant workers leave their hometowns and have to migrate to different cities, different states and different corners of the country in search of livelihood for themselves and their families," he said.
The CJI said the Indian experiment with universal adult franchise contradicts all myths against it.
"It was believed that only a few had the wisdom to vote. Our experience tells us that even the most vulnerable have the political consciousness to choose the leader they want," he said.
"Therefore, we must reject every form of elite understanding of the democratic process which we keep hearing constantly that only the educated are better decision-makers," the CJI said.
He said the elite perception that only the educated or a few individuals should have the right to vote shows contempt and distrust towards democracy.
Speaking about Dr L M Singhvi, the CJI said he was an astute jurist, a fierce parliamentarian, a prolific writer and an encyclopedia of knowledge on Indian history and culture.
During his lecture, Justice Chandrachud said reservation of seats for women and marginalised social groups in 'panchayats' has given them the power to shape their own destinies, and it is a "silent revolution" ushered in by universal adult franchise.
He said universal adult franchise helped establish a sense of belonging and responsibility among citizens as equal stakeholders in the country's progress.
"This sense of belonging and faith in democracy is best captured by the life of late Shri Shyam Saran Negi, the first voter of independent India in 1951, who recently passed away on 5th November, 2022 just three days after voting for 34th time in the Uttarakhand state assembly elections," he said.
The CJI said the citizens' ability to participate in electoral democracy and promote good governance was also enhanced through the tool of Right to Information.
"The actual realisation of one's vote is to continuously participate in democracy in everyday life, to ask questions from the elected representatives and to keep the state accountable," he said.
Referring to the historical context to understand universal adult franchise, Justice Chandrachud said the demand for equal voting rights and to become a part of the political process emerged from the marginalised communities across the world.
He said when negotiations to give rights to Indians and to draft their Constitution were happening in the 20th century, Babasaheb Ambedkar led a strong demand that conception of a free India cannot happen without giving universal adult franchise.
The CJI said marginalised communities had to struggle every inch to claim equal rights and therefore, the idea of universal adult franchise is not just a political idea but is social at its core.
"The Preamble of the Constitution beginning with the words 'We the People' made it abundantly clear that the will of people of India was the source of sovereign authority and that India was to be constituted as a sovereign secular democratic republic," he said.
He said right from the very first elections in independent India, Indian citizens have demonstrated a lot of enthusiasm in participating in the electoral process.
"Several constitutional commentators had believed that India will not be able to survive as a constitutional democracy. But the Indian citizens have proved such thoughts to be wrong," the CJI said.
He said one aspect which we must emphasise is the participation in the electoral process by those communities who initially did not have the right to vote but were granted the right by the Constitution.
"Post-independence history tells us that the marginalised communities such as Dalits have considered the right to vote and the idea of universal adult franchise as the sacrosanct feature of the Indian Constitution," he said.
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