Political democracy in India is being viewed and judged primarily in its minimalist/procedural form, encompassing nothing but a multiparty system, regularly held free and fair elections, high level of participation and contestation and peaceful and regular transfer of power on a periodic basis. India has been witness to 16 Lok Sabha elections and over 350 state assembly elections. What has brought the institution of elections still closer to the citizens in the last three decades is the introduction of local bodies’ elections in post-1992 India vide 73rd and 74th constitutional amendments. Arguably, it has added yet another level of competitive election system, extending it effectively to the grass-roots level, making it much more inclusive and competitive and in the process strengthening and providing legitimacy to the basic framework of India’s democratic regime. India is among very few ‘new’ democracies with an unbroken history of holding comparable elections over such a long period of time (even national emergency imposed in the mid-seventies did not disturb this, only delayed it) which involve so many parties and candidates in the fray with such an intense participation of the huge electorates, constituting one sixth of the total electorates, globally. In the context of participation and contestation, significant for the wellbeing of representative character of democracy, India stands out for its ‘exceptionalism’.Unlike the ‘old’ democracies of the west, in India not only has electoral participation increased with every new election (Diwakar, 2008), but the poor and illiterate citizens have started to vote in these elections in larger numbers, as compared to the rich and literate (Varshney, 2000). In yet another distinctive feature of India’s representative democracy, the level of electoral participation in India goes up in the elections which are held for lower legislative and executive offices and local bodies, thus underlining the democratic assertion taking place from below (Diwakar, 2008).All these developments in electoral politics have made India’s democratic institutions much more representative in terms of their social and spatial composition. This has been an important factor, given the enormous size and vast scale of social and cultural identities in India, with even the historically dormant identities becoming politically mobilised and assertive.
Arguably, if elections have emerged as the ‘central institution’ of India’s democracy in the face of the weakening of other ‘non-electoral’ democratic procedures, forums and peoples’ movements on the ground, credit goes to the voting citizens of India. This brings us to a discussion about who is a citizen of India. The Indian Constitution does not explicitly define the term citizen though part II of the Constitution (Article 5 to 11) mandates that all the people of India who as British subjects were born or domiciled in India on November 26, 1949 (the day Constitution was adopted, also referred to as the date of commencement vide Article 394) became Indian citizens. The distinction between citizen and the non-citizen became distinct on this date of commencement. Citizenship is a union subject mentioned in the seventh schedule and under Article 11 of the Constitution, the Indian Parliament has the exclusive jurisdiction to regulate and determine it. It enacted the Citizenship Act in 1955, providing the detail regarding the basis on which citizenship can be claimed. The Constitution of India vide Article 325 debars exclusion of any citizen of India from the electoral roll on the basis of religion, race, caste or gender. Article 326 provides for universal franchise. The Election Commission’s independence as a constitutional body to conduct free and fair election is ensured vide Article 324. These articles are in conformity with Article 14 and 15 in part III of the Constitution which mandates equality before law and state being directed to ensure that there is no discrimination against any citizens on the basis of religion, caste, gender or place of birth.
Despite detailed constitutional provisions and subsequent parliamentary Act, citizenship or rather who deserves to be a citizen of India remains a highly debatable and contentious issue. It goes back to 1986 when ethnic violence took place in Assam, followed by the students’ movement (All Assam Students Union, which later took the form of the All Assam Gana Sangram Parishad as a political party) against the non-Assamese infiltration both from other parts of India and from the neighbouring Bangladesh. The year saw the amendments to the Citizenship Act of 1995 and the association of migration with illegality and disqualification from citizenship (Roy, 2010). The recent development in Assam after the filing of the preliminary national register of citizens (NRC) has brought back the issue of ‘foreigners’ and illegal migrants, having dangerous communal overtones as allegedly Bangladeshi Muslims form the majority of these illegal migrants (Das, 2018; Karmakar, 2018). While this issue played a major part in determining the electoral choice in the assembly elections in the state as significant demographic change in religious terms has been pointed out, this issue has the portend to play a significant role in the 2019 elections, especially in the seven states of northeast as almost all these states have the issue with the migrants from other parts of India or from the neighbouring countries. The recent debate about allowing Rohingya refugees, escaping the persecution in Myanmar to seek refuge in India also reignited the issue of illegal Rohingya settled in India especially in the border state of Jammu and Kashmir, many of whom have acquired citizenship allegedly through fraudulent means. Since in both these cases receiving massive media attention and political debate, religion of the imputed ‘citizens’ has remained of paramount importance, it suggests the rightward shift in the electoral politics of recent India as political parties of all hues make an electoral capital out of it. Even the civil society maintained a studied silence.
In recent years, the issue of ‘differentiated citizenship’ has also received renewed attention, as the debate over the constitutionality of Article 35A which empowers the state government of Jammu and Kashmir to define which residents of the state are conferred the status of ‘permanent residents’ has grown. The special rights provided to permanent residents include the right to own immovable property, scholarship for education and compete for state government jobs. The argument against this provision of the Constitution is being made on the basis of equality rights conferred vide Articles 14, 15 and 16. We the Citizens, a civil society group has also challenged it on the ground that the insertion of Article 35A was not made following the procedure as stipulated in Article 368 which provides for constitutional amendment. This is also being projected as injurious to the spirit of national unity and integrity as enshrined in the preamble of the Constitution. Since women having permanent resident status tend to lose their status after marrying a non-permanent resident, so the opposition to Article 35A is also being raised on gender (Ananthakrishnan, Tripathi and Jaleel, 2017). Moreover, since the state has its own 1957 Constitution and non-permanent residents cannot vote in the assembly elections, this has also been a bone of contention for the ‘nationalist’ voices who consider it as against the equality principle, considered the basic feature of the Constitution(Parthasarathy, 2018). Again, the 2019 elections would be witnessing the drumming up of this issue to rouse passion along the ethnic lines not only in the Jammu and Ladakh regions but in rest of India. Right-wing forces are also likely to rake up the recent Supreme Court historic decisions on the Triple Talaq and Sabrimala Temple involving Muslim and Hindu women rights, respectively, as electoral issues to polarise the electorates on communal lines.
Electoral Politics | Endnote
While the Constitution ensures regular and fair elections and Indian democracy has witnessed large scale participation and contestation involving the citizens, as mentioned above, the fact remains that collective claim of ‘all India’ citizens in the form of their well being remains largely unfulfilled. While every party which contested the elections so far at whatever level (2019 would not be an exception) has promised to eradicate/alleviate poverty and address substantive issues that relate to everyday life of the majority of marginal citizens, the fact remains that once the votes are polled, the voters are not represented in terms of policy making/implementation process or in terms of ensuring institutional/popular accountability. What comes in the way of the realisation of truly representative democracy is the large scale role of the social cleavages, populism and role of money in the everyday politics of India overshadowing its democracy. Would the scenario change in 2019? For any discernible observer of Indian democracy, it is difficult to be sanguine in this respect.
Ananthakrishnan G., R. Tripathi and M. Jaleel, 2017, Plea against Article 35 A cites gender bias, sent to larger SC bench, Indian Express, August 15.
Das S., 2018. Illegal immigration in Assam not a religious issue, but an ethnic one, Livemint, August 20.
Diwakar R., 2008. Voter Turnout in the Indian States: An Empirical Analysis, Journal of Elections, Public Opinion and Parties, 18 (1): 75-100.Karmakar R., 2018. Ground Zero: The ‘suspected foreigners’ of Assam, The Hindu, July 14.
Parthasarathy S., 2018. Article 35 A and Basic Structure, The Hindu, August 27.
Roy A., 2010. The Citizenship Amendment Act, 1986: The Politics of Place-Making and Suspect Citizenship, in Roy, Mapping Citizenship in India, New Delhi: Oxford University Press: 92-134.
Varshney A., 2000. Is India Becoming More Democratic? The Journal of Asian Studies, 59(1): 3-25.