While re-reading Justice Chelameshwar’s dissenting opinion in the NJAC Judgment, I just came across – what seems to me to be – a rather significant observation. In paragraph 85, Justice Chelameshwar writes:
“Article 326 prescribes that election to Lok Sabha and the Legislative Assemblies shall be on the basis of adult suffrage. One of the components is that the prescription of the minimum age limit of 18 years. Undoubtedly, the right created under Article 326 in favour of citizens of India to participate in the election process of the Lok Sabha and the Legislative Assemblies is an integral part (for the sake of convenience, I call it an ELEMENT) of the basic feature i.e. democracy. However, for some valid reasons, if the Parliament were to amend Article 326 fixing a higher minimum age limit, it is doubtful whether such an amendment would be abrogative of the basic feature of democracy thereby resulting in the destruction of the basic structure of the Constitution. It is worthwhile remembering that the minimum age of 18 years occurring under Article 326 as on today came up by way of the Constitution (Sixty-first Amendment) Act, 1988. Prior to the amendment, the minimum age limit was 21 years.”
The observation is significant because Justice Chelameshwar is one of the two judges hearing the constitutional challenge to the Haryana Panchayati Raj Act, which mandates educational, property and debt-based restrictions upon running for Panchayat office. In this paragraph, there are two important points. The first is the admission that the right to participation in the electoral process (which would include both voting and standing for election) is part of the basic structure, despite not being an express “fundamental right” under Part III (an omission which has done significant damage to civil rights over the years). This would mean that restrictions upon participation in the electoral process must can only be justified through very strong reasons, and in a way that the core of the basic feature – democracy – is not damaged (using the “width and identity” test propouned in Nagaraj’s Case for deciding a basic structure violation).
Secondly – and even more significantly – I suggest that the restriction which Justice Chelameshwar deems to be acceptable, throws significant light upon that which is not acceptable. The restriction he talks about is an age barrier – whether 18 or 21. To sharpen the issue, let’s take a hypothetical: a mandatory minimum age for the consumption of alcohol, which is found in all jurisdictions (or an age of consent). Let us say that we are agreed that there has to be some minimum age barrier for alcohol consumption; the principle behind it is that the possible deleterious consequences of alcohol consumption requires needs to attain a certain degree of physical and mental maturity before one is allowed to consume alcohol. We may disagree over what that minimum age is – perhaps you may think that it should be 16, and I may think that it should be 18. But we do agree that there’s no bright line test for physical and mental maturity. Any line that we set, whether 16 or 18, will be underdetermined. It will end up excluding some people who would be physically and mentally mature enough, and including some people who aren’t. So whether the government ends up making it 16 or 18, we can’t really claim that it is an irrational classification, because the very nature of the process requires a there to be a rough estimate (age), which will not map exactly upon the rationale for the classification (maturity) – but it is the best that we have.
If we code this in Article 14 language, the intelligible differentia is age (our bright line); the governmental purpose is protecting people not in a position to make responsible choices from self-harm (legitimate, as everyone would agree); the rational nexus is a rough link between age and maturity (we agree that there is a rough connection, and also that it is impossible to be more precise).
But now compare this with a general restriction upon the sale of alcohol, as passed by some States, which also has an exemption for 5-Star establishments. This is an entirely different case. Here the law implies that poorer people, who do not frequent 5-Star establishments, have less of an ability to control themselves on consumption of alcohol. In other words, the basic logic is the same – government acts to protect people who cannot make responsible choices from self-harm – but extends its classification to equate socio-economic status with perpetual minority, or the inability to make a responsible choice (a Kerala High Court decision upholding a liquor ban on these lines was upheld by the High Court, and has presently been stayed on appeal).
Let us now come back to voting and participating in elections. An age bar is exactly akin to an age bar on alcohol consumption. The basic logic is the same: the intelligible differentia is the bright line of age. The purpose is to maintain the integrity of the electoral process, since only people who have attained a certain degree of mental maturity are expected to make a responsible choice about who will govern them, or to actually carry on governance (this also explains why unsoundness of mind is another disqualification). The rational nexus is that age bears a rough relationship with maturity, and that greater precision is impossible.
Educational, property and debt disqualifications, on the other hand, are exactly like a liquor ban that exempts 5-Star establishment: it places a group of people in a position of perpetual minority, deeming their class or socio-economic status to disqualify them from acting as responsible participants in the process of governance (notice that the restriction operates upon voters (by circumscribing their range of choices) as well as candidates).
In stating that participation in elections is part of the basic structure, and that reasonable regulations can be imposed upon it, such as age restrictions, Justice Chelameshwar is entirely correct. The basis of the regulation is not in dispute, and the impossibility of an exact fit is not in dispute. Neither of those two conditions are met in the Panchayati Raj Act, and more importantly, if participation in elections is part of the basic structure, then the Government bears the burden of showing that essentially, the Panchayati Raj Act is akin to an age restriction. Consequently, Justice Chelameshwar should now extend his own logic, and strike it down.
(In the next – and my last post on the subject – I will argue that in any event, the Panchayati Raj Act should be held to a higher standard of scrutiny under Article 14 than mere “rational review”, and that for independent reasons, the affirmative burden should be on the government)