Right to Vote:
By the right to vote we mean that every adult citizen has the right to express his opinion by casting a vote at the time of election what persons he desires should undertake the task of government. The right to vote is the product of democracy. But even a democratic government does not grant this right to every citizen.
Aliens, bankrupts, paupers, certain category of criminals and minors are often denied the right to vote. Some States deprive their female population of this right. But neither sex nor property, neither race nor creed, neither religion nor education should be the criterion for the grant of the right to vote. “Whenever,” Laski says, “the body of voters is limited, the welfare realised excludes that of the persons excluded.”
To allow owners of property alone to possess the right to franchise is undemocratic and it has proved disastrous to the interests of those who do not own property. Similarly, limiting the right to vote to a certain caste, creed, colour or sex has meant creation of special privileges for that class alone.
Even Mill’s argument that education should be the criterion of the right to vote has no popular appeal. The right to education, as said before, is now regarded as one of the important basic rights and all democratic countries have either made, or are endeavouring to make, at least primary education free and compulsory.
It is contended that the right to vote should be as wide as possible and one man, one vote ought to be the maxim of a democratic government. “Popular control means that all adults share the political power; to say people are in law politically equal means at least that each adult has the vote.
The suffrage is thus one criterion of democracy; to the extent that the suffrage is less than universal, to that extent the system is less democratic, less under popular control.”
Right to be elected:
The right to be elected or to represent the people is another important political right. In fact, the right to vote and the right to be elected as a representative are twin-born and essential for a democratic government.
The responsibilities of representatives are enormous and difficult, because they make laws, control and determine the national expenditure and revenues, and in a parliamentary democracy control the executive and the national policy.
It is, accordingly, necessary that the representatives should be chosen with due regard to their experience of public affairs and renowned for their honesty, integrity, broad outlook, and selfless patriotism.
Every State now prescribes certain minimum qualifications which legislators ought to possess. “Absence of limitation,” in the opinion of Laski, “may give us a Younger Pitt, but gives us a large number of members who go to the legislative assembly merely for the prestige which membership confers.”
This frustrates in the State as the richest. This shows that even the will of an average citizen has channels of direct access to the sources of authority spreading over all public offices, executive, legislative and judicial.
To entrust the power to the mass of people means a more close and stringent scrutiny of public administration. But the 1973 Constitution of Pakistan, as well as its predecessor, denied the right to non-Muslims to stand and contest for the office of the President of the Islamic Republic.
In the United States of America, a naturalised citizen is debarred to become a President. Such a denial debars a section of the community from access to a public office and is an undemocratic process.
It does not, however, mean that academic, professional and other like qualifications suited and appropriate to the office to be held cannot and should not be prescribed and enforced.
What it really means is that whatever qualifications are prescribed and whatever mode of appointment is adopted should be applicable to all alike and citizens should not be discriminated against on grounds of birth, religion, race, caste or sex. It is, indeed, imperative to prescribe appropriate and specific qualifications to ensure an honest, efficient and sound administration.
Merit alone should be the sole criterion for all appointments. In India, due to historical reasons an exception has been made in the case of Scheduled Castes and Backward Classes and Tribes by fixing a certain percentage of representation for them.
Intrinsically, this exception violates the basic principle of democracy. But the object of such an exception is to safeguard the interests of such castes and tribes, as they had been all through victims of the social highhandedness of the ‘classes and castes’ who regarded them as ‘untouchables’ and denied to them even the elementary requirements of life.
Right to Petition:
The right to petition entitles every citizen to send petitions, either individually or collectively, to the competent authority, executive or legislative, for the redress of grievances. In democracy, the rulers cannot ignore the legitimate grievances of the people, because they are the ultimate sovereign.
The government must feel the pulse of the people and promptly respond to their needs; otherwise it hazards its own existence. No democratic government can afford to forget that tomorrow is the day of election.
The right to send petitions for the redress of grievances is an old right and the people had been practicing it in all the countries. The classical example is the Grand Remonstrance, well-known in the Constitutional History of England. Now the Rules of Business of the Legislative Assemblies in almost all countries provide for the submission of such petitions.
The Question Hour itself is essentially for the ventilation of grievances of the people through their representatives. In Switzerland the right of petition takes the form of Initiative and a specified number of voters, through a signed petition, can initiate legislation either for the removal of certain evils in the existing law or providing for a new law the need for which is felt urgently.
Right to Criticizing the Government:
“A society that is able to discuss,” says Laski, “does not need to fight and the greater the capacity to maintain interest in discussion, the less danger there is of an inability to affect the compromises that maintain social peace.”
The government which provides adequate opportunities to criticise matters of its administration and policies is really a democratic government.
Democracy is a government by criticism, for truth only comes out through the clash of opinion with opinion and every citizen has something of value to contribute and he must not be hindered in bringing it the subjects in whatever way he wishes, and to influence the majority of his fellow-citizens to decide according to those views, and to influence those desires.”
The right of criticising and assailing its policies is beneficial for the government, too, for it provides the government an opportunity to defend its intentions and practices and to acquaint the political sovereign with what exactly its aims are.
When John Stuart Mill made his historic statement that vigilance is the price of democracy, his emphasis was on free and frank criticism of the policies of the government and its administration. This is tantamount to controlling the government so that it may not act irresponsibly.
Such control is more urgent today, for the functions of the government are so much more extensive and touch the very bones of individual lives. But the right to criticise the government is possible only in free and democratic States. It cannot be obtained in countries governed by dictators or those under foreign rule.
Right to Resist:
It is often claimed that a citizen has the right to resist authority of the State, if he is genuinely convinced that a particular law or governmental action is against his moral sense of justice.
But resistance to such laws of the State or governmental actions is only a moral right and not a legal right, for no State can permit an action which amounts to a defiance of its authority and may jeopardise even its own existence.
On the side of morality and justice, it may, however, be conceded that if the majority of citizens really feel and believe that the laws of the State or the actions of the government are tyrannical and are against the true interest of the people and obedience thereto may have demoralizing and degenerating effects on them, they may resist against such laws and authority and may even revolt.
Enforcement of Rights:
Finally, every citizen must possess the right to enforce his rights. In the absence of such a right civil and political rights are meaningless. Article 32 of the Constitution of India guarantees to every citizen the right to move the Supreme Court for the enforcement of Fundamental Rights.
And for that purpose the Supreme Court has been given the general power to safeguard the Fundamental Rights as well as the power to issue directions or orders or writs, including writs in the nature of habeas corpus, mandamus, prohibition, quo warranto and certiorari which may be appropriate for any of the Fundamental Rights.
In Britain, individual rights are safeguarded, although there is no declaration of Fundamental Rights, by means of the “prerogative writs” which have been called by Dicey “the bulwark of English Constitution.” In the Constitution of the United States of America there is no specific provision empowering the Supreme Court to issue writs.
The framers of the Constitution had assumed that the common law writs would be available to the citizens, and, accordingly, they specifically prohibited against the suspension of habeas corpus.
But in India while a Proclamation of Emergency is in operation, Fundamental Rights relating to the six freedoms can be suspended. The President may also suspend the right to move Courts for the enforcement of any other fundamental right, except the right to life and liberty, but such an order must be passed by the Parliament. It is, therefore, only a temporary measure.