Triveni Journal

1927 | 11,233,916 words

Triveni is a journal dedicated to ancient Indian culture, history, philosophy, art, spirituality, music and all sorts of literature. Triveni was founded at Madras in 1927 and since that time various authors have donated their creativity in the form of articles, covering many aspects of public life....

The Problem of Franchise

By N. G. Ranga


DR. SUNDERLAND’S chapter ‘Is illiteracy a bar to self-government’ in his forthcoming book was published in the January Number of the ‘Modern Review’ with the editor’s enthusiastic commendation. Mr. Ramanand Chatterjee, the editor, has himself contributed an article to the same number, in which he advances the examples of many important countries which embarked upon self-government through democratic institutions, in spite of the fact that large numbers of the electorate were illiterate. In fact, every genuine nationalist is prepared to affirm that it is not necessary for India to wait for self-government until her masses are all educated, and there are many nationalist leaders who boldly claim that the so-called illiterate masses of India are quite capable of choosing their rulers in a satisfactory manner. But unfortunately, this attitude is assumed by our leaders and propagandists only when they confront foreign critics, who are a bit doubtful of our fitness to rule ourselves, because so many of us are illiterate. And when they begin to think out a constitution for the future India, they are not at all sure of the general capacity of the masses to rule themselves. Almost every scheme of Swaraj proposed by our thinkers has tried to deprive, directly or indirectly, the great masses of the country of the elementary political right of citizenship, i.e, franchise. Some require a property qualification, Some insist upon educational qualifications, and others would like to enforce both these qualifications before one is given a vote. In fact, according to Dr Besant’s scheme, the number of voters will be considerably less than at present, owing to her educational and property clauses. It looks as if our political thinkers do not envisage a democratic government for self-governing India but an oligarchy or class government. None of them, except Mahatma Gandhi,1 seems to be sympathetically inclined towards the masses. Therefore it is no wonder that the Depressed Classes, who number more than sixty millions, have declined to co-operate with the nationalist leaders in their attempts to boycott the Simon Commission. Mr. M. C. Raja, their spokesman in the Assembly, has definitely stated that he did not feel sure that the interests of the suppressed classes of India would be safe in the hands of those classes which enjoy political power to-day, and which have had a chance to develop their political consciousness. It is my purpose to trace in these pages the history of political thought upon the question of franchise and to indicate the developments which the franchise has had in its various forms in some of the most important countries.


Self- government based upon representative institutions has been demanded by many thinkers ever since Milton's eloquence in its cause found expression in Areopagetica. But though favourable to representative institutions, many distinguished people doubted the desirability of introducing universal franchise in the country. Milton himself cried out bitterly, ‘Who would vindicate your right of unrestrained suffrage, merely that you might elect the creatures of your own faction, or him, however small might be his worth, who would give you the most lavish feasts and enable you to drink to the greatest excess?’ This was his reply to the ‘levellers’ in Cromwell's army, who were bold enough to propose the introduction of universal franchise. Milton says, "Ought the guidance of the republic to be entrusted to persons to whom nobody would entrust the management of their private concerns? Who would suppose he would ever be made a jot more free by such a crew of functionaries ?" These are weighty arguments, indeed, against the introduction of universal franchise, but the ‘levellers’ who had seen the terrible results of the autocracy of Charles I, and the instability of the government of the Commonwealth, were convinced that the possible dangers of universal franchise could not be much worse.

Harrington, the author of Oceana, declared that, "Freshness of life by which the State makes progress is effected by rotation. Rotation ensures that the individual members of the community take their share in the government." According to him, there is a natural aristocracy of intellect diffused widely throughout the whole body of mankind. The duty of such an aristocracy is to be the counsellors of the people. True government should rest on persuasion. In order to enable every citizen to elect his rulers properly, he proposed that there should be organised weekly classes to explain to the people their civic duties. A thousand officials were to go through the country to give the people their first lessons in the mysteries of representative govern ment.2

Priestly said, as early as 1768, in his ‘Essay on the First Principles of Government’, that ‘no man can be governed without his consent, for government is founded upon a contract by which civil liberty is surrendered in exchange for a power to share in public decisions’. Burke could not, on the other hand, think of any wide extension of franchise inspite of the fact that there were the excellent examples of popular government of Greece.3 Rousseau had advocated the sovereignty of the people, so that there might be no hindrance, in the shape of sinister interests, to their achievements, but Burke felt that the only result of such popular sovereignty would be a French Revolution and so he abhorred the idea of universal franchise.4 While Harrington would like government by the natural aristocracy which springs from the people themselves, Burke was satisfied with his British constitution which was guided by a water-tight landed aristocracy. In fact, as Professor Laski maintains, the eighteenth century thinkers were extremely anxious to dissociate themselves from any kind of belief in a democratic government, though most of them championed the cause of representative institutions.

When we come to the nineteenth century, we breathe an entirely new and refreshing atmosphere. The French Revolution had not occurred for nothing, and the triumphs and failures of the French people supplied both hope and warning to the friends of the people in Germany, Italy and England. Though Cobbett and O’Connel struggled hard to achieve universal franchise, statesmen like Pitt, Peel and Wellington opposed its introduction, tooth and nail, and the meagre reforms of 1832 were the result of half-a-century’s agitation. A liberal like Bagehot could write as late as the seventies of the last century, "I do not consider the exclusion of the working classes from effectual representation, a defect in our constitution. The working classes contribute almost nothing to our corporate public opinion, and therefore, the fact of their want of influence in Parliament does not impair the coincidence of Parliament with public opinion".5 He agreed that the working classes were ‘left out of representation and also in the thing represented.’ At the same time, he was, prepared to argue that "as long as a great class, congregated in political localities, and known to have political thoughts and wishes, is without palpable advocates in Parliament, we may prove on paper that our representation is adequate, but the world will not believe it". According to him, the working classes did not demand political rights as strongly and effectively as the manufacturing classes. If the ability to demand a political right is the only criterion for the fitness of a people to enjoy it, even the British working classes of the Chartist agitation should be considered quite fit to enjoy the franchise. But Bagehot could not think of such a thing. When, inspite of these political sages, manhood suffrage was granted to the urban population by the Reform Act of 1867. Bagehot wisely pleaded that the political masters should be educated properly, so that they might use their franchise in a proper manner.

Herbert A. L. Fisher writes in the ‘Contemporary Review’ for February 1928 that there was unbounded faith in, and enthusiasm for, democratic institutions during the latter part of the last century. But I do not find any such faith in the writings of either J. S. Mill or Bagehot, the two representative thinkers of their time. J. S. Mill certainly had no faith in autocracies or in oligarchies. But, inspite of his genuine love for the masses at large, he was almost equally afraid of democracies, conducted by ill-instructed voters. So he proposed that all those who attained a certain educational standard should be given a plural vote in order to counteract the bad effects of the votes of the uneducated masses. By 1890, the Liberal thinker, Sidgwick, felt safe to draw his inspiration from Bentham who put his implicit faith in an instructed democracy, rather than from J. S. Mill. But, even he maintained that the demand for political rights should come from the people themselves, and he was unable and unwilling to admit that the people could be trained to use the vote properly even when they were enfranchised. Yet Sidgwick may, on the whole, be taken to have advocated universal franchise.

Though Harrington was able to foresee the great influence of the moneyed classes in politics, neither Bentham nor Bagehot, neither Mill nor Sidgwick, seem to have realised that the democracy they were at pains to advocate or attack might be dominated or led by the rich and the few. This discovery was made by Marx and his disciples. They have lost their faith in the ability of democratic Parliaments to ameliorate the social and economic conditions of the working classes satisfactorily, and have begum to advocate direct action. G. D. H. Cole and Tawney are also disillusioned about the much-vaunted advantages of universal franchise, and so are advocating, the formation of functional Guild Parliaments, wherein the rich cannot find much representation. Bertrand Russel and Laski maintain that workers can derive the full benefits of universal franchise only when they are fully trained, educated and guided by the State. All these thinkers have taken universal franchise for granted, and they are trying to find ways and means by which they can better enable the masses to get the greatest benefit out of their political rights. The framers of the new German constitution have also realised that universal franchise is not in itself a sufficient guarantee for the economic well-being of the community, and so they have established the Federal Economic Council with branches all over the Republic. The general trend of opinion to-day is that universal franchise is but the first step which a government should take in order to achieve the fullest prosperity—material and spiritual—of its subjects. To-day, the outstanding problem in Europe is not so much the finding of methods of preventing democratic institutions from being abused by ignorant masses, as freeing them from the clutches of the rich.



The United States of America was the first important country to adopt universal franchise in the working of its political institutions. Excepting the Negroes of the South, who have been denied the vote on some fictitious educational test, almost all adult males have been given the right to exercise a vote in the political life of the country. But the country is a vast one and the President of the Republic, the Governors of the States, and many other important functionaries, have to be elected by the popular vote, in addition to the members of the Federal and State legislatures. So the party ‘Machines’ of both the Republicans and the Democrats have been perforce obliged to develop a national system of branches, which have come to be dominated by cliques of people, who are again in the hands of the landed people, the capitalists and the industrialists. Thus, to-day we find in the U. S. A. the spectacle of the workers’ organisations mercilessly destroyed, by the State governments, even though the workers form, as everywhere else, the great majority of the people of the States. Political life is exploited by the rich, and the poor have no place in the political institutions of that country.

In England, the question of franchise has had a long history and even to-day, there is an agitation to enfranchise women to the same extent as men. When the first Reform Act of 1832 was passed, the conservative elements in the country were afraid that their vested interests would be destroyed by such a revolutionary change in the constitution. But by 1860, Bagehot was able to record that, though the middle classes were made the ultimate masters of the country, it was the nobles and their henchmen who formed the ministries and guided the destinies of the country. Then from 1832 till 1867, we find the Middle Classes trying their best to prevent their government from alleviating the growing misery of the workers, in their homes and work-shops. This was a period when the interests of the industrialists and the capitalists were furthered at the cost of the national well-being. In the name of laissez faire and free-trade, the urban and rural workers were left to the rapacity of employers and to suffer from congestion of housing and the recurring periods of unemployment. But from about 1870, we find a new atmosphere in the political life of England. In 1871, the Trade Union Act was passed during Gladstone’s ministry, but it was not conceived in a progressive spirit. However, in 1874, a more progressive measure was passed by Disraeli, who owed his power in Parliament at that time largely to the support of the disillusioned workers. From 1874 till 1924, labour has won, one after 'another, many privileges from the government, which has all along been dominated and manned by the higher classes. Thus, though money and social position counted for as much in political life as before, the people at large have the satisfaction of achieving at least the minimum rights and safeguards in the modern complex life. The introduction of universal franchise has not brought about revolutions in England; the monarchy is as strong as ever and the social prestige of Society is coveted to a greater extent to-day than in the sixties of the last century. It is in 1925 that the British voters, who had previously allowed the Labour Party to form the government, sent the Conservative Party to Westminster with a large majority. Most of the members of the present ministry are recruited from the aristocracy and the rich, and yet the voters do not find it in any way strange to allow such people to govern them. The power to choose men and policies is much more important than the question of the personnel of a government. The British middle classes entertained grave doubts as to the future stability of the constitution when Disraeli’s Reform Act of 1867, which enfranchised the urban workers, was passed. But by 1880, the Conservative Prime Minister, Lord Salisbury, felt sure of the power of the middle and upper classes to lead and guide the working classes and so he enfranchised the rural workers also. In America, the government was at no time used entirely in the interests of a class. But in pre-reform England, the landed interests alone got the best out of the government. The industrial and commercial needs of the growing cities of the North were neglected in favour of those of the landed gentry. It was as an after-effect of the first Reform Act, that the Corn Laws were repealed to benefit the newly enfranchised classes. The Chartist Movement assumed such gigantic proportions mainly because the working classes were suffering from the iniquitous economic system created by the landed interests. Thus we find that whichever class obtained the vote has used it primarily in its own interests without much concern about the national well-being.

Japan, a country which is as conservative in its essential temperament as India, has recently adopted universal franchise without making much ado about it. Western critics were rather doubtful about the effects of such a radical reform, which increased the number of voters from 3 to 9 millions at a stretch. But as was forecasted by a writer in the January Number of the ‘Contemporary Review’, no revolutionary changes have come to pass as a result of the first general elections held on the basis of universal franchise. The same old parties are returned and their combined strength is not very much altered. The socialist and labour parties which made much noise could get only eight members elected. So the same old rule of the governing classes continuing to govern will be repeated in the next two decades at least, although the spirit in which the government will be carried on will be more and more favourable to the furtherance of the interests of the people at large.

The French Republic is based upon popular sovereignty and the mission of the members of its legislatures is "to legislate in the place of the people". The French thinkers i have believed, from the time of Rousseau, in universal franchise and their faith can be expressed in the following words of Montesquieu. "It is necessary that the people as .a body should possess the legislative power, and every man who is reckoned to possess a free mind should be governed by himself or by his representatives." The result of this adult male franchise has been to humanise the governmental relations with the masses and to better their material and moral conditions, in spite of the fact that the rich have almost complete control of governmental machinery.

The German Republic has also introduced universal franchise, and its experience in the last seven years is so far favourable to this experiment, in that it has enabled the high-born and moneyed-classes to keep their hold on governmental institutions, while the oligarchic tendencies of the governing classes have been effectively held in check by popular sovereignty. In fact the Social Democratic, Socialist and Communist parties have managed at times to command even a majority in the Reichstag of Germany, but the conservative elements have so far succeeded in keeping their hold upon the government. In Australia, universal franchise is the rule, and labour has successfully attempted to capture the majority of seats in the Federal Parliament. But labour could rule for only a few years, and the conservatives succeeded it and formed the alternative governments, and so the economic and social institutions of the Federation are much more progressive than similar institutions in England.


If India were to take advantage of the experience—in realms of thought and action—of the western countries, and if she were to avoid the harmful conflicts between those who have voted and those who have not, she must adopt a distinctively democratic constitution. The 1919-20 Reform Act is no doubt an advance over the 1908 Minto-Morley Reform Act, but it has left out of the pale of the constitution a great majority of the people. The class and caste interests are dominant in our country, and unless we introduce universal franchise, we shall not be able to safeguard the interests of the people as a whole. The first condition for the healthy growth of democratic spirit and institutions amidst us, is that universal franchise shall be established.

Those who are afraid that the introduction of adult male suffrage into India may loosen the grip of the landed and wealthy classes, are labouring under a misapprehension. For, only the rich can in future succeed in organising parties, financing elections and reaching the electorate. So, for a good few generations, there is no possibility for the representatives of the labouring classes to form even an effective opposition in the legislatures. After all, social status in India counts for as much as in England, if not more, and the experience of most of the great democratic nations is only too favourable to the governing classes.

It is argued by some that some sort of property qualification is needed, because the voter may then have a certain amount of sense of responsibility. Some object to the granting of political power to classes which do not contribute anything to the national finances. But, a ten-rupee Land Revenue or House-tax is no indication of the presence of sense of responsibility in a voter, and it is at best only an arbitrary limit. Moreover, most of the workers are able to earn at least Rs. 100 per family even in this poor country, and this ability to earn one's own living should at least be considered a sufficient qualification for one to get a vote. Again, it is wrong to assume that such workers do not contribute anything towards the national finances, because for one reason, the taxes paid by other sections of people are indirectly due to some extent to the labour of the workers, and for another, even such workers pay indirect taxes such as the Salt tax, Excise and Customs.

Most of our thinkers are horrified at the idea of enfranchising millions of illiterate people. I like to draw their attention to the excellent contributions of Dr. Sunderland and Ramanand Chatterjee. I have come to believe, through my study among the people, that the masses of our country are much better informed about our culture, epics and Dharma—in however antiquated a way it may be—than many of our so-called educated people. I am afraid our grandees are prone to put too much premium upon literacy. Though literacy is one of the most essential qualifications for a vote, it is not everything. These conservative thinkers must realise that, even at present, there are millions of voters who are illiterate for all practical purposes, and who have by now learnt how to make use of their power. Anyone who has had any share in the three general elections of the last decade, will be able to testify to the fact that the voters are gradually learning the proper way of utilising their votes. While in Japan, not more than 40% of the voters go to the polls, here in India, more than 60% of them went to the polling booths in the last general election.

There are yet some people who ask why we should not be satisfied with the present system of nominating a few representatives of the depressed and labouring classes to the Local and Imperial legislatures. These people forget that the first function of representation is ‘educative’, and that it cannot be carried out by the system of nomination, because those who are nominated are dependent for their membership upon the Government and not upon the masses. If the people at large do not get an opportunity to share in the general elections, they will not be able to distinguish between different candidates, and to choose finally the one who is most, satisfactory to them. It is quite true that on the face of it, the Madras Legislative Council is representative of all sections of population, but it has lamentably failed to enliven the political life of the masses, because it has failed to entrust the masses with the elementary responsibilities of a representative Government. A council which does not succeed in enabling all sections of the people to share in its educative and expressive functions, cannot claim to be a democratic institution.

The present legislatures of India are neither oligarchic nor democratic. They consist of the so-called representatives of a heterogeneous population. There is not even one member, excepting those few representing the cities, who can claim to represent wholly the people of a particular locality. We have the representatives of the Hindus, the Muhammadans, the Christians, the Merchants, the Mill-owners, the Workers and the Depressed classes, but not those of all these sections of population put together. It may be that this system gives a better representation to certain sections of people, but it is not a democratic system, as understood in this century.

If, however, we introduce at least the manhood suffrage, we can enable all those who claim to form the upper and middle classes to enjoy as much pomp as they do at present and we can at the same time constrain them to obey the mandates of the people at large and not of their sectional fraternities.

There are again some people who maintain that it is better to extend the franchise gradually in proportion as the need for it is recognised by the masses themselves. They are of opinion that the present system of nomination is good enough, and that it is rather foolish to force franchise, upon the people who do not demand it. But, has the 1919 Act granted franchise only to those who demanded it? Has the 1867 Reform Act of England granted franchise only to the most vociferous people? Is it not possible, is it not advantageous, to extend this privilege to certain sections of people also, even though they may not demand it? Then, they will be voluntarily but effectively aroused to political consciousness by the periodical elections and the consequent political agitation.

In a country like ours, where there are as many as sixty millions of people who have been brought up to think that their oppression and suppression are the natural phenomena which cannot be altered by any human agency, and are therefore mentally enslaved to the higher classes, the extension of franchise to include them also is an absolute necessity. If these people are given the opportunity to realise that the contending candidates, who belong to the higher and richer classes, are dependent for their success upon the exercise of their own political right, then, adult male suffrage will have more than justified itself. In fact when a Panchama finds, so many people of higher castes going to his hut several times to beg for his vote, he cannot but realise that somehow, he is no longer destined to be the underdog and that he has also got in his gift something coveted by all the higher classes. This realisation will help him to extricate himself out of the morass of moral bondage, and this will be the greatest achievement of franchise.

Some may wonder why an extension of franchise to embrace the suppressed classes also is advocated, when it is known that, as a result of such a system, only the rich and the landed gentry get themselves elected in most cases. What is the benefit of such a change? To-day, the rich people who monopolise the councils are unwilling to raise sufficient funds to finance such beneficial measures as compulsory, free elementary education, an enlightened housing policy for the masses, rural reconstruction and unemployment relief schemes. But when universal franchise comes into operation, they will be anxious to find various means of augmenting the national finances so as to pay for all these schemes, either fully or partially, in order that they may please the masses. The future rulers j of the country cannot work for the benefit of the higher classes alone, but will be obliged to serve the people at large, provided adult male suffrage is introduced in the meanwhile. They will be suffered in power only for so long as they satisfactorily serve the interests of the whole of the people.

If we want to enjoy Democracy, which is the best form of Government, and if we want our vast millions of morally stunted people to discover the innate divinity in them, we must introduce adult male suffrage at least. It we are anxious that the elementary civic needs of a people should properly and fully be satisfied, and if we seek to make the Government of India a great, wholesome and stimulating influence amongst our people, we must introduce general constituencies and universal franchise. Vested interests, the prestige of the landed feudal aristocracy, the spirit of domination, and the age long traditions of exclusive rights of political power, are the forces in our way to prevent us from achieving Democratic Government in India. If we succeed in at least controlling these forces, we can obtain Democracy for Mother India.

1 Gandhi once said, when asked for his views upon the property qualification, that he would himself be unable to get a vote under such conditions, and that he saw no benefit to the people at large out of a government by those citizens only who pay ten rupees of land revenue or house-tax.

2 It is interesting to note here that the editor of ‘Triveni’ published a series of pamphlets in Telugu in 1920 to educate the newly enfranchised masses, and that the Andhra Library Association ran a Summer-school in Bezwada to train social workers in the methods of educating the voters in their civic responsibilities. But unfortunately, their examples have not caught the imagination of our people.

3 Present Discontents.

4 Thoughts on French Revolution.

5 British Constitution.

Like what you read? Consider supporting this website: