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India’s Move Against the Poor

 NEW DELHI — There are moments in a republic’s life when its governing institutions choose efficiency over democracy. Dec. 10, 2015, when India’s Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of a state law barring wide swaths of the population from contesting elections for village and district councils, was one such moment.

That day the court endorsed a law passed by Haryana, a small state bordering on Delhi, in September 2015. The Haryana Panchayati Raj (Amendment) Act disqualifies from local political office citizens who have been formally charged with serious crimes, citizens who are behind on loan payments to rural cooperative banks, citizens who haven’t paid their electricity bills, citizens who don’t have a functional lavatory at home and citizens who lack certain educational qualifications. (All these people may still vote.)

The stipulation that men running for local office should have high school diplomas and that women and Dalit candidates should have completed middle school was the most controversial part of the amendment, because it would disqualify about one half of Haryana’s rural voters. For that reason, the Supreme Court’s recent decision upholding the law, “Rajbala and Others vs. the State of Haryana and Others,” is a landmark in conservative jurisprudence and a dangerous departure from the ideal of a participatory democracy.

It is also a deviation from the Indian republic’s original idea of itself. Immediately after independence in 1947, the constituent assembly debated whether educational requirements should apply to either voters or political representatives. It decided against both options, prizing universal suffrage and political inclusiveness over any other consideration. Given that back then India’s literacy rate hovered around 12 percent, this was a heroic bet on mass democracy.

And it paid off: India has had more than six decades of stable, elected governance.

So why, then, would the Haryana legislature try to fix something that wasn’t broken? And it’s not just Haryana: Rajasthan, a much larger state, passed a bill with similar educational requirements last March.

The attorney general of Haryana argued before the Supreme Court that the state’s government wanted “model representatives for local self-government for better administrative efficiency.” Literate — as well as debt-free and toilet-endowed etc. — representatives would not only set an example for rural fellow-citizens, the argument went; they would also make better administrators.

There are two major problems with this claim, and both were presented to the Supreme Court by the petitioners in the case, three women in office who would have been ineligible for their posts under the amended law. The first problem is inconsistency. Under the new law, a citizen in Haryana must meet a much higher educational requirement to run for the lowest tier of local government than to contest elections for the state legislature or even the national Parliament.

The second problem is that the law, in effect, punishes the poorer half of Haryana’s population for the failure of both state and national authorities to provide free education to all Indians.

Yet the two-judge bench of the Supreme Court, citing judicial restraint, stated that it was its business to examine not the wisdom of the bill, but only its constitutionality: The judges would strike down the law only if the Haryana legislature had exceeded its authority in passing it, or if the law violated the fundamental right to equality of those it targeted by discriminating against them in ways that were arbitrary or irrational.

The judges decided the law passed muster because, given the importance of education to good administration, it was reasonable to exclude from office anyone with insufficient education. And if the principle of exclusion was sound at all, it did not matter how many people would be excluded — or that most of those excluded would be the poor, particularly poor women and poor Dalits.

Never mind, either, that the 73rd Amendment of the Constitution, which created the legal basis for village councils, bemoaned the “insufficient representation of weaker sections like Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and women.” Or that in the same judgment in which they defended the educational exclusion on principle rather than effect, the same judges upheld the Haryana law’s provision disqualifying debtors on grounds that it would affect only a minuscule segment of the population. (The indebted, they reasoned, were unlikely to contest expensive elections.)

The inconsistencies in this decision should be reason enough for the case to be re-examined by a larger bench of the Supreme Court. Another reason is the decision’s possible seismic aftereffects: It opens the door to other attempts to qualify Indians’ right to contest elections.

In a poor country like India the educated and the debt-free are, by definition, better off than those who are not educated or have debt. To designate the first as exemplary, or credit them with superior moral will, is to imply that the others are feckless and unwilling to improve themselves. In fact, those others are simply poor. And to limit the poor’s access to office is to say that they deserve to vote but only for their betters, an attitude more appropriate to the 19th century than the 21st.

It is significant that Haryana and Rajasthan, the two states that have pioneered the education exclusion, are ruled by the Bharatiya Janata Party, India’s principal right-wing party. Populist in idiom rather than intent, the B.J.P. appears to be using these two states as laboratories in which to test the chances of a broader conservative move to limit the political participation of the poor.

This vision of solid citizens leading the shiftless poor toward civic virtue is un-republican: It constrains liberty, corrodes equality and mocks fraternity. The founders of the Indian republic categorically rejected such paternalism; it should not be smuggled in today through the backdoor of local government.

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