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Referendum not an option under Constitution: SC

Published: 10th Aug, 2023


Recently, the Supreme Court (SC) has mentioned that, seeking public opinion in a constitutional democracy like India has to be through established institutions or Democratic tools and there is ‘no question of referendum’ under the country’s Constitution.


What is a Referendum means?

  • A referendum is an instrument of direct democracy through which people can vote directly on a particular issue.
  • It is a form of direct democracy in which citizens are allowed to vote on a specific issue or question, typically proposed by a government or other official body.
  • The results of a referendum are then used to determine the course of action that will be taken by the government or other decision-making bodies.

Scope of Referendums:

Referendums have been used to decide on a wide range of issues, including:

  • Constitutional amendments
  • Secessionist movements
  • Major political decisions e.g. Brexit
  • Controversial social issues such as same-sex marriage etc.

Types of Referendums:

  • Mandatory Referendum: It is a form of a referendum that must be voted on if specific criteria are satisfied.
  • Optional Referendum: A form of referendum is held in response to demand.

Referendum in India:

  • There is no provision for a referendum in the Indian Constitution.
  • However, the referendum is neither unlawful nor forbidden in India.
  • Referendums have been used in India in the past;
    • Sikkim conducted a referendum to remove the monarchy on April 14, 1975. With 55 percent of the vote, the state was declared an Indian state.
    • The Goa Opinion Poll, held on January 16, 1967, in the Indian state of Goa, determined the future of the Union Territory of Goa, Daman, and Diu within the Indian Union.

Why it is difficult to include a Referendum for India?

  • Over-simplification of complex issues: Referendums often present complex issues in a binary choice, which can lead to oversimplification of complex issues and reduction of public debate and discussion.
  • Manipulation: Referendums can be manipulated by interest groups and politicians, who may use propaganda and misinformation to influence voters and shape the outcome of the vote.
  • Turnout bias: Referendums may suffer from turnout bias, where the outcome is determined by the segment of the population that turns out to vote, rather than by the majority of the electorate.
  • Minority rights: Referendums may lead to the tyranny of the majority, where the majority imposes its will on minority groups, even if it violates their rights or interests.
  • Lack of deliberation: Referendums are often decided based on a simple majority, without the kind of deliberative process that would happen in a legislative body, where representatives have the time and resources to engage in debate, compromise and negotiation.
  • Polarization: Referendums can polarize the public and create divisions within society that can be difficult to heal after the vote.

Other tools in Democracy:

  • Recall: Recall procedures allow the electorate to vote in whether to end the term of office if an elected representative or official if enough signatures in support of a recall vote are collected.
    • Although the process of recall is often similar to that of citizens´ initiatives, recall deals only with the question of the removal if a person from public office and the outcome is therefore always binding.
  • Plebiscite: A plebiscite is a direct vote in which the entire electorate is asked to either accept or reject a particular proposal or issue.
    • It is a form of direct democracy that allows citizens to express their views on important issues.
    • Plebiscites are typically used to decide on major political issues, such as constitutional amendments, changes to electoral systems, or territorial disputes.

Referendum vs. Plebiscite:

  • Key difference between plebiscites and referendums is the level of specificity of the question or proposal that is put to the vote.
  • Plebiscites often have more general or abstract questions, while referendums usually have very specific questions that require a clear yes or no answer.
  • In terms of their legal status, plebiscites are not always recognized in the same way as referendums.
  • Some countries have specific legal provisions for plebiscites, while others do not. Referendums, on the other hand, are usually provided for in a country’s constitution or legislation.

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