Today's Editorial

Today's Editorial - 31 March 2024

History Headline | 1920: The Start of India’s Election Journey

Relevance: GS Paper I & II

Why in News?

Edwin Montagu, the catalyst for the 1920 elections, emphasised the importance of honest education for the electorate and urged against racial or religious prejudices. He hoped that the charm of Indian courtesy would not disappear during the turmoil of an election, a sentiment that remains relevant today.

Montagu-Chelmsford reforms:

  • The report on Indian Constitutional Reforms 1918 (popularly called the Montagu-Chelmsford Reforms) highlighted the shortcomings of the 1909 election process.
    • It stated that electorates were mainly designed to represent special classes or interests, with some limited to a few hundred, and those representing Muhammadans were intended to be fairly inclusive.
  • The Montagu-Chelmsford report recommended setting up a national legislature with two Houses.
    • One of the Houses in this law-making body would have members directly elected by the people.
    • The report also suggested setting up legislatures at the state level with elected members.
  • The British Parliament accepted these recommendations and passed the Government of India Act 1919.
    • Until then, there was no need for a full-scale electoral law. However, with these recommendations coming into effect, lawmakers had to be elected by the people.
    • The government needed an electoral framework to hold the first large-scale elections in our country.
  • The Montagu-Chelmsford reforms reduced the administrative workload and resulted in a minimal franchise size

Electoral framework:

  • The 1919 law and rules outlined the election process in India, specifying qualifications for voting and contesting elections and mechanisms for preparing the electoral roll.
  • Eligible voters and candidates were British subjects, with the voting age being 21 and the contesting age being 25.
    • Women could not vote or contest elections unless the state legislature removed sex disqualification.
  • The law also provided for different constituencies, including Muhammadan, non-Muhammadan (rural and urban for both), Sikh, European, Landholders, and Chambers of Commerce.
  • Voters and candidates had to meet domicile, income, and property-holding criteria to participate in the elections.

Emergence of direct elections:

  • The 1920 elections marked the beginning of direct elections in India, replacing the colonial policy of selecting educated Indians for legislatures.
    • Public demand for more Indian representation led to 1909's limited elections, including a separate electorate for Muslims, which was a controversial measure.
  • Mahatma Gandhi launched the non-cooperation movement in August, encouraging prospective candidates not to participate in the election process.
    • This led to discouragement of contesting, potential ridicule of the reform process, and embarrassment of the British government.
    • In some cases, individuals whose success at the ballot had the potential to ridicule the reform process were also put up.
    • The election process in Lahore has turned violent due to violent speeches by non-cooperation advocates.
      • A government officer believes these incidents are the direct result of these speeches, which have led to the British Government of India being hated by ordinary citizens and the gift of responsible government being despised.

Transition from colonial rule to independence:

  • The 1919 law and subsequent elections increased Indian representation in the legislature, but the right to vote remained limited.
    • However, there were learnings that independent India’s Parliament would build over.
      • For example, the colonial government in 1920 passed a law criminalising threats, bribery and inducement during an election.
      • It penalised these corrupt practices with both jail time and a fine. They were added to the Indian Penal Code.
  • Since independence, the Parliament has strengthened legal provisions to ensure free and fair elections, with the most significant step being ensuring everyone over 18 is enrolled to vote.
  • Approximately a billion Indians will be on the electoral rolls in the upcoming general elections.

Beyond Editorial:

The Evolution of Democracy in India:

  • Indian democracy has stood the test of time and witnessed events like the partition of India and Pakistan, the massive exchange of population with Pakistan, the integration of over 500 princely states, and some of the wars in later years with Pakistan and China.
  • It has evolved from a single majority party after independence to a multi-party system.
  • The Indian Republic currently has a parliamentary system of democracy and a federal structure in which citizens of various castes, classes, religions, etc, elect leaders.

Challenges to India's Democracy:

  • There has been considerable development in India since independence, but it has been uneven. According to Oxfam India, the wealth of India's richest families has reached a record high. India has been described as a very unequal country.
    • Low-wage, low-skilled jobs remain the probable form of employment for millions of young Indians, particularly in poorer, more populous states such as Uttar Pradesh, creating a large population of disenchanted voters.
    • Indian democracy faces further challenges because of criminality in the political system.
  • Frequent elections and incongruent political ideologies lead to unstable and weak governments, e.g., the 1990s phase of coalition politics in India and the recent political crisis in Maharashtra.
    • Election campaign finance laws have become more opaque, making it easier for individuals to make unlimited anonymous donations, undermining the integrity of elections.
  • Worst of all, religious division and resentment have intensified, challenging the constitutional right to religious freedom and undermining the rule of law.
  • Moreover, the frequent use of means to curb the freedom of speech and expression granted by the Constitution itself reflects the government's inability to heed political dissent from its voters.
  • The challenges faced by institutions of grassroots democracy in India, i.e., panchayats and municipalities, are numerous. There is a lack of financial resources, a substantial devolution of powers, and a lack of skills and training to perform the work efficiently.

Making democracy work better:

  • The government should hear criticism rather than reject it outright. Suggestions on eroding democratic values need a thoughtful and respectful response.
  • The press and the judiciary are considered the pillars of India’s democracy and must be independent of executive interference.
  • A strong democracy requires a strong opposition. Without an alternative choice, the very objective of elections—to provide a check on arbitrary power—gets defeated.
  • Empowering the Election Commission of India (ECI) to make the democratic process more fair and effective.
  • Strengthening the local governments to ensure the effective participation of people in the democratic process.



The historical legacy of Edwin Montagu and the Montagu-Chelmsford reforms, alongside subsequent developments in India's electoral framework, offer valuable insights and lessons for understanding the complexities of democratic governance and the ongoing quest for electoral integrity and inclusivity.


Prelims PYQ:

Q. Consider the following statements:​ (UPSC 2021)

1. The Montagu-Chelmsford Reforms of 1919 recommended granting voting rights to all the women above the age of 21.​

2. The Government of India Act of 1935 gave women reserved seats in legislature. ​

Which of the statements given above is/are correct?​

(a) 1 only ​

(b) 2 only​

(c) Both 1 and 2 ​

(d) Neither 1 nor 2​


Q. Which of the following is/are the principal feature(s) of the Government of India Act, 1919? (UPSC 2012)

1. Introduction of diarchy in the executive government of the provinces

2. Introduction of separate communal electorates for Muslims

3. Devolution of legislative authority by the centre to the provinces

Select the correct answer using the codes given below:

(a) 1 only

(b) 2 and 3 only

(c) 1 and 3 only

(d) 1, 2 and 3


Mains PYQ:

Q. To enhance the quality of democracy in India the Election Commission of India has proposed electoral reforms in 2016. What are the suggested reforms and how far are they significant to make democracy successful? (UPSC 2017)