Why a Brexit-type Referendum Is a Bad Idea to Replicate in India

With 6 national parties and 49 regional parties, a politically fragmented India is no place for a referendum.

Updated25 Jun 2016, 07:33 AM IST
4 min read

It’s not just Brexit, referendums had a bad reputation even in ancient Greece.

The Athenians, believed to be the oldest practitioners of direct democracy gave only men the equal right to participate in the political arena. Women and slaves were prohibited and critics of the day– Thucydides and Aristophanes observed that the proceedings at Pnyx Hill were dominated by an elite and the assembly comprising of 6000 citizens (out of a total population of 30,000 to 60,000) was susceptible to the agendas of good orators or popular leaders, who were known to be carried away by emotions, or simply lacked the knowledge to make informed decisions.

This isn’t unlike the referendum in Britain, where Pro-Leave politicians incited fear and xenophobia; thereby swaying the vote.

The last time a referendum was held in India was during the integration of Junagarh into the Indian state in 1947. The Nawab acceded to Pakistan despite resistance from the Hindu-dominated population. The matter was settled by Sardar Vallabhai Patel who offered to hold a plebiscite. 99 percent of the population voted to stay with India.

The Indian Constitution, adopted three years later, made no provision for referendum. We have free and fair elections and everyone is allowed to express themselves, so why does one need a referendum, asks Constitutional Expert Subhash Kashyap.

Why a Brexit-type Referendum Is a Bad Idea to Replicate in India

Cultural and Party Pluralism

Referendums as an institutional mechanism have been used regularly in Switzerland, Britain and Scotland. “But those are societies with a very different kind of politics,” Zoya Hasan, political scientist and professor emeritus at JNU tells The Quint.

Given our cultural pluralism represented by the wide array of political parties, how would we decide what issue is worthy of a referendum? Unlike Britain, that had a three, now four-party system, India has 6 national and 49 regional parties recognized by the Election Commission of India.

The Indian people are today watching the civility with which the Brexit vote took place. We couldn’t possibly replicate that.
Zoya Hasan, Professor Emeritus, Centre for Political Studies at JNU’s School of Social Sciences

Literacy & Information Dissemination

The decision to leave or remain in the European Union was taken on the basis of a lot of information that was supplied to the people. Full page advertisements with statistics on immigration, economic considerations and the overall pros and cons were made available to the public in the run up to the 23 June vote.

Whether or not people voted on the basis of this information is impossible to know, but the fact remains that the information was easily available if they chose to factor it in.

In a country where a political debate regarding sedition involves a party spokesman showing a doctored video on national television and the discussion around a fake encounter involves allegations of a “fake signature”, hopes of being presented with an argument grounded in facts rather than political prejudice, are minuscule to say the least.

“How will Indians make such a decision? On the basis of absurd TV debates which are like a referendum anyway?”, asks Ms Hasan, who is skeptical about how a democratic process like a referendum would work in a country like India.

Majoritarianism vs Reason

The David Cameron government made way for a referendum on Brexit despite the fact that it was against leaving the European Union. Majority won; the people chose to leave the EU and the Prime Minister announced his resignation. In a country like India that strives to protect its minorities, single-issue politics can do more harm than good.

“If the UP election becomes about a single issue, say around the nature of expression of the Hindu identity, it’s very clear which party will win,” says Sudhir Krishnaswamy who teaches political philosophy.

Hypothetically, lets say 65% of the people in Uttar Pradesh want a Ram Temple. Successful politics is about developing a grammar and a language or a narrative that allows other interests also to rise to the surface. Because if you ask how many people in the state want peace and order, it may be another 20% outside of the 65% that want a Ram Temple.
Professor Sudhir Krishnaswamy, Political Philosophy and Politics in India, Azim Premji University, Bengaluru. 

India’s cutthroat political polity also makes it hard to imagine a scenario in which the incumbent government would call for a referendum on an issue that it stands against in Parliament.

Sambit Patra asking Times Now Editor-in-Chief Arnab Goswami to show the video of Kanhiaya Kumar making an“anti-national” speech, which was later found to be doctored. (Photo: You Tube/Times Now)
Sambit Patra asking Times Now Editor-in-Chief Arnab Goswami to show the video of Kanhiaya Kumar making an“anti-national” speech, which was later found to be doctored. (Photo: You Tube/Times Now)

Yogendra Yadav’s Take on Referendums

Yogendra Yadav, on the other hand, is a bit more optimistic about referendums, calling them desirable and one of the essential instruments of a healthy democracy, provided three conditions are met.

1. It should be about something that is significant and has long term consequences. You cannot have referendums on trivial issues.

2. It is preceded by deliberation and information. There should be enough space for issues to be debated and discussed.

3. It is not allowed to trump minority rights. Minority rights cannot be taken away by majoritarianism.

But this is as much true for elections as it is of referendums, says the psephologist.

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Published: 25 Jun 2016, 02:07 AM IST

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