The Constitution proclaims the sovereignty of the people in its opening words. The preamble begins with the words, “We the people of India, having solemnly resolved to constitute India into a sovereign republic”. The idea is reaffirmed in several places in the Constitution, particularly in the chapter dealing with elections.
Article 326 declares that “the elections to the House of People and to the Legislative Assembly of every State shall be on the basis of adult suffrage”. As a result, the Government at the Centre and in the States derives their authority from the people who choose their representatives for Parliament and the State Legislatures at regular intervals.
Further, those who wield the executive power of the government are responsible to the legislature and through them to the people. Thus, in the affairs of the State, it is the will of the people that prevails ultimately and not the will of a few selfish individuals. This is the principle of popular sovereignty.
There have been kings, revolutions, constitutions and vast bureaucracies since time immemorial. But the idea of adult suffrage and the common man as elector are of very recent origin.
To Aristotle the ideal form of democracy meant that the vital decisions affecting the community made by the assembly of the whole citizenry in the market place.
Today, it means that every adult citizen man and woman alike goes to the polling booth and casts his (or her) vote in favour of those who, in his opinion are the best persons to represent him in the management of the affairs of his government.
Elections are not the only possible method for securing representatives. But they are considered the most democratic method. They are democratic because every adult citizen gets a chance at regular intervals to participate in the selection of those who will rule over him.
It is impossible, therefore, to over-emphasize the importance of free popular elections to ensure a democratic government based upon the consent of the governed.
In spite of the ignorance and illiteracy of large sections of the Indian people, the Constituent Assembly adopted the principle of adult franchise with faith in the common man and the ultimate success of democratic rule.
The Assembly was of the opinion that democratic government on the basis of adult suffrage would alone “bring enlightenment and promote well-being, the standard of life, the comfort and decent living of the common man”.
The principle of popular sovereignty has not been a mere ideal embodied in the Constitution but has been a living reality during the last six decades and more during which the Constitution has been in operation.
The fifteen general elections the country has had so far (1951-52, 1957, 1962, 1967, 1971, 1977, 1980, 1984, 1989, 1991, 1996, 1998, 1999, 2004 and 2009) have demonstrated that the illiterate and presumably ignorant masses of India are not altogether incapable of independently exercising the right of franchise.
In fact, this precious right in their hands, which ensures the democratic ideal of “one man, one vote, one value”, irrespective of his wealth, education, social status and “importance”, has, in fact, enhanced their self-respect as citizens of a democratic India.
It has instilled in them the belief that they are no more mere “hewers of wood and drawers of water”, but are important enough as members of a vast new human society engaged in the great co-operative enterprise of building up a new nation.
The awareness that the strength of the State is the aggregate strength of its individual citizens is fast dawning upon them. They are also fast realising that suffrage is the link that binds, in a bond of mutual interest and responsibility, the fortunes of the citizens to the fortunes of the State.
It is this realisation and its increasing impact in successive elections in the future that will prove the strongest and the most enduring base on which the superstructure of democratic government in India is to flourish.
Free elections are, perhaps, the greatest forum of mass education. The dangers inherent in adult suffrage among an illiterate people can be mitigated only by the blessings of universal education.
In a country like India, where a sizeable proportion of its population still illiterate, the attainment of universal education is a goal still a long way off. But this need not necessarily mean that until a certain minimum standard of universal education is realised, the Indian masses are incapable of properly exercising their right of franchise.
Illiteracy is not quite the same thing as ignorance. A free election, which ensures the free exchange of ideas and free canvassing by contending parties who stand for differing programmes of social organisation for the realisation of the common welfare, offers the best medium for the political education of the illiterate masses. It is this that the Constitution guarantees.
The Constitution-makers were not satisfied by merely providing for adult suffrage. They wanted to ensure free elections by creating an independent constitutional authority the Election Commission of India to be in charge of everything connected with elections.
Free election is a reality in India. It ensures for the electors both the freedom of choice and the secrecy of the ballot. The fourteen general elections have demonstrated that the ordinary man, in spite of his so-called ignorance, has been able to exercise his robust common sense in electing candidates of his choice.
Neither money nor social status nor official position has been powerful enough to make him a convenient tool in the hands of self-seeking politicians. This perhaps is the surest and the most welcome guarantee that popular sovereignty will remain a living reality in India despite the fact that large sections of its people are steeped in ignorance, poverty and social backwardness.