Why Education Should Not Be a Barrier for Contesting Elections

If you erect entry barriers to contesting, you are effectively curtailing the right to vote, by pre-emptively selecting the pool of people from whom the voters can decide.

After YouTuber Dhruv Rathee took to Twitter to slam the Rajasthan government’s decision to scrap the minimum education criteria for civic poll candidates, Delhi-based lawyer Gautam Bhatia wrote a thread to break down why the move is actually in the spirit of democracy. 

A thread on why this view is not correct:

There is no evidence to demonstrate that people with a formal education can do a better job as elected representatives than those without. In fact, anecdotal evidence at the time the law was passed suggested the contrary.

See, for instance, Radha Devi. There were many such examples – especially – of women panchayat leaders who drew upon their own experiences of deprivation and lack of opportunity, to ensure that that did not continue.

That, alone, is a good enough reason for why this law was wrong. Formal education has no necessary connection with the qualities required for good and competent political and administrative leadership.

But actually, this framing is itself suspect.

It is suspect because we live in a democracy, and at the heart of our democracy is the concept of representation: voters decide who will best represent their interests, and elect them to legislative bodies accordingly.

Also read: New Rajasthan Cabinet Scraps Education Criteria for Civic Poll Candidates

Therefore, when you say that formally uneducated should be barred from contesting elections, what you are effectively saying is that you don’t trust the voters to decide who will best represent their interests. This is arrogant and presumptuous.

Now you may argue that there is a distinction between the right to vote and the right to stand for election, and that nobody is taking away the right to vote. But they are two sides of the same coin. If you erect entry barriers to contesting, you are effectively curtailing the right to vote, by pre-emptively selecting the pool of people from whom the voters can decide. It is, effectively, a restriction on voting, just that it’s done indirectly.

Third reason: such laws are discriminatory. They discriminate on lines of gender and caste, because those who have been deprived of access/opportunities to education, are inevitably the most vulnerable members of society. This is documented.

So, the Haryana law disenfranchised 68% of Dalit women and 50% of all women from contesting. It’s not these peoples’ fault that they were unable to get a formal education. Deprivation is function of social discrimination, not individual character flaws.

For these three reasons – that it has no tangible effect on the quality of decision-making, that it is counter to the fundamental logic of democracy, and that it is discriminatory – this law was bad.

Now, to some objections.

Objection A: Will you also get rid of age-based restrictions?

Answer: No, because the logic of an age restriction is entirely different. We agree that participation in democratic politics requires a degree of *mental maturity* that is a function of age.

And, more importantly, everybody reaches that age. I address this in a more detailed fashion here.

Objection B: What about convicted criminals?

Answer: Again, the logic is different. Somebody who has broken the law and *is undergoing his sentence* is in the process of paying back a debt to society. It is a legitimate argument to say that the integrity of the electoral process requires them to be kept out while they serve their sentence. After they have finished serving their sentence, and have technically rejoined society on equal terms, I see no reason why they should continue to be kept out.

Objection C: How will they perform tasks that require a formal education, such as, for e.g., signing documents?

Answer: The Panchayati Raj Acts have detailed provisions for providing legislative and technical assistance to people who are elected.

Final point: remember, there is a long history of denying, curtailing and interfering with the democratic process because the people in power believe that other people are incapable of using the vote in a “fitting manner”. This was the logic of the British regime that imposed property qualifications on the vote, tried to impose a “wifehood” qualification, and all kinds of restrictions. For a magisterial treatment of this phenomenon, see Alexander Keyssar’s book, The History of the Right to Vote.

Also read: From Restoring Right to Contest, to Education, Rajasthan Congress Reverses BJP Decisions

When our constitution was being framed, some of the members of the Assembly wanted to restrict the franchise, because they feared giving it to a vast number of “illiterate Indians”. Fortunately, they were overruled, and a great leap of faith was taken.

This leap of faith was to transform India into a full-blooded democracy, and not a hollow shell of a democracy. This means that, at the end of the day, to respect the autonomy and decision-making capacity of the voter.

I think that covers all aspects. For those interested, each of these arguments are developed in a much more detailed fashion on the Indian Constitutional Law and Philosophy Blog, from back in 2015.

This article is a compilation of tweets published by Gautam Bhatia, a Delhi-based lawyer. They have been reproduced here with permission.