In his memorandum to the Simon Commission in 1928, the father of the Indian Constitution B.R. Ambedkar said, “Those who insist on literacy as a test and insist upon making it a condition precedent to enfranchisement, in my opinion, commit two mistakes. Their first mistake consists in their belief that an illiterate person is necessarily an unintelligent person…Their second mistake lies in supposing that literacy necessarily imports a higher level of intelligence or knowledge than what the illiterate possesses…"
The definition of a good politician is highly subjective and the qualities expected of one are too vague. However, if multiple people are asked to pen down what they think are the important traits of a leader, in all likelihood, there will be many overlapping qualities running through the lists. Honesty, reliability, ability to connect with the common people, and the strength to deal with crises are some of the most commonly expected answers. However, is there a reason to believe that a modern, educated politician will be a better leader, particularly at the local level?
Late last week, Rajasthan’s newly elected Congress government decided to get rid of the minimum education qualification required to contest elections to panchayats and urban bodies. This criterion was introduced by the previous Vasundhara Raje-led government, which said that a contestant must have a minimum qualification of secondary-level education (Class X) and to contest the sarpanch elections, the general category aspirant must have passed Class VIII and a SC/ST aspirant, Class V.
There were diverse reactions to the current government’s move on social media. Some called the decision a regressive move by the government, suggesting that only educated people be given the chance to contest.
This isn’t the first time the country is dealing with this question. The same debate took place when the Raje government set the criterion in 2015. It also happened when the Haryana government passed the Haryana Panchayati Raj (Amendment) Act, 2015, doing the same.
While the Constitution states the eligibility criteria for becoming MLAs and MPs in India in terms of, say, the age of a person, there are no required minimum educational qualifications for them or even the ministers. In India, which still has 35% of the world’s illiterate population, it is unfair to propose a move that can potentially disenfranchise a substantial population of the country, solely based on its education levels.
The new government’s move should be welcomed because decisions such as these will loop in more from the underprivileged sections, particularly Dalits and women, whose educational levels are in no way a reflection of their desire to be educated or their efficiency, and rather speak more about the disadvantages of the social locations they come from.
If the country’s politicians are any reflection of the society, one can see both an Oxford educated former prime minister and a Class VI-pass current cabinet minister. In a country where a proclivity for criminality is an electoral asset, as the book When Crime Pays: Money And Muscle In Indian Politics by Milan Vaishnav states, perhaps what the country should ask for is its right to not be governed by criminals, instead of contradicting the basic tenets of a democracy.