Indians have been participating in elections regularly. People have been electing their representatives for running governments at national and state levels and also for local governments. Voting in elections is a formal and simple form of political participation.
People’s participation becomes effective only when there is a respect for public opinion. Within a country there are people and groups having different points of view, some people have disagreements with certain policies or programmes of the government. A process of debate and discussion is important for a healthy democracy.
The essence of democracy is the freedom to voice one’s opinion even if it is critical of the government. In fact, democracy is enriched when different voices and constructive opinions influence the policies of the government. Democratic government is a government that sustains itself through public opinion which is expressed through the medium of elections.
People vote to elect their representatives who form and run the government. These representatives implement the government’s policies and programmes. People’s participation in the election is what makes our democracy a representative and participatory democracy. But the meaning of people’s participation does not begin and end with their voting in elections.
People’s participation is also expressed through public debates, newspaper editorials, protest demonstrations and their active involvement in governmental programmes. Even in respect of election process, it includes participation in campaign, political discussion, working for political parties and standing as candidates.
Universal Adult Franchise
Elections play an important role primarily because of the system of universal adult franchise adopted in India just after its independence. In Great Britain, the universal adult franchise was granted in 1928, nearly 300 years after the process of democratisation began. In Switzerland, the Home of Democracy, it was also granted as late as in 1972. In India, however, universal adult franchise became a part of the electoral process right from the beginning of establishment as a democracy, that is, after Independence.
‘Universal’ means commonly applicable to all persons, without any discrimination; ‘adult’ means a person who is a major and not a minor; ‘franchise’ means individual’s right to cast his or her vote. Thus, universal adult franchise means a system in which all adults, men and women, without any discrimination, have a right to vote in the elections. But all adults do not include those who are legally barred from voting.
New Zealand was the first country to grant universal franchise in 1893, and Finland was the first European Country to do so, in 1906. Universal Adult Franchise was introduced in Germany in 1919, Sweden in 1920, and France in 1945.
The concept of universal adult franchise is based on the principle of political equality: one person, one vote; none has more than one vote. It helps ensure liberty of the people and helps secure protection of rights. It is educative in so far as it widens the scope of people’s participation.
The right to vote is linked with age of the person. The minimum age required for voting differs from country to country. In most countries, the voting age is 18 years, as in India, China, United States of America, Great Britain and Russia. In countries like Iran, the minimum age for a voter is 15, while in Brazil, Cuba, Nicaragua, it is 16 years, and in Indonesia, North Korea and Sudan, it is 17 years. In Japan and Tunisia, it is 20 years, while in South Korea, it is 19 years. In countries such as Kuwait, Lebanon, Malaysia, Maldives, Singapore, the voting age is 21 years, but in Uzbekistan, a voter has to have a minimum age of 25 years.