How India Became Democratic

In an interview with The Wire, Ornit Shani talks about the efforts of the bureaucracy, the administration and the participation of ordinary people that led to the realisation of electoral democracy in India.

Ornit  Shani, author of How India Became Democratic.

In her latest book How India Became Democratic, Dr Ornit Shani, a senior lecturer in the Department of Asian Studies at the University of Haifa, has analysed the administrative processes that institutionalised adult franchise in India in the post-colonial period. In her interview with The Wire, Shani talks about the efforts of the bureaucracy and the administration as well as the robust participation of ordinary people that led to the realisation of electoral democracy in India. Instead of studying the issue of democracy through the prism of ideology, Shani has unveiled this fascinating story by researching administrative documents to chronicle the narrative of universal franchise in India.

Between 1947 and 1950, administrators across the country, put together electoral rolls to make universal franchise a possibility. That this was the time when India grappled with partition trauma with millions of displaced refugees crossing the borders and finding new homes, adds to the uniqueness of this book. The narrative dwells on the complicated processes of engagement between bureaucrats and the people, the  procedural equality introduced by adult franchise, all of which have deepened the roots of India’s electoral democracy.


I’m intrigued by what led you to study this very unusual topic. In fact, you’re the first person to look at these processes through the prism of administration processes which made India democratic. Can you please elaborate?

So the book is a result of a question I’ve been asking for a long time and felt that I didn’t get a good answer. I asked senior election management officials, and chief election commissioners, how the first list of voters under universal franchise was prepared in India. I’ve been meeting these election commissioners at annual Cambridge conferences on electoral democracy in the commonwealth. Of all the election management bodies I have been exposed to, the Indian Election Commission stood out as an exceptionally autonomous body that strives to ensure that no voter would be left behind.

At the time I looked at citizenship in the context of partition. I wondered how in the context of partition, and when you had 552 princely states that had yet to become part of India, did India manage to draw up the first list of voters.  I didn’t get a good answer to that question.

I went to the report of the first elections and there were a few paragraphs there that said that the Secretariat of the Constituent Assembly started some work on the preparation of electoral rolls in November, 1947, and that the Constituent Assembly made a decision about that. But I couldn’t find any records for those decisions. After much search in various archives, the files were found in the record room of the Election Commission of India. The files were later transferred to the National Archives of India. So in a way, I wanted an answer to the question, how the largest list of voters in democratic world’s history was prepared.

The Election Commission of India. Credit: PTI

At the outset of the book you’ve mentioned that universal franchise was not something the colonial government handed over to the Indians. Was the imagination of universal franchise part of the national movement? How would you explain this?

The making of the universal franchise was by no means a legacy of colonial rule. Colonial administrators thought that universal franchise was a bad fit for India, and that even if they would have wanted to introduce universal franchise, it would be impossible and impractical administratively.

It’s true that the idea resided with the nationalist movement and already from the 1928 Nehru report there was a commitment to universal franchise. But still, there was a huge gap between the idea and its actual implementation. Putting adult franchise into practice had to be achieved against impossible odds when 85% of the population was illiterate, and had never voted for their representative in a legislative body. Under the 1935 Government of India Act, suffrage, the right to vote, was extended to a little more than 30 million people. So implementing the universal franchise was, in my view, the starkest act of decolonisation because Indians had to imagine the universal franchise for themselves, and then to make it their own reality.

In your book you stressed that it was not the case that there were no electoral institutions during colonial rule. But franchise was heavily restricted on the basis of gender, class, wealth, property and from there India transitioned to a stage when everybody, regardless of economic and social status, became a voter.

Electoral democracy, in a sense, becomes a leveller – like when you were mentioning in our conversation earlier that people from all castes, all classes stood in the same queue to cast their vote. To what extent did this process strengthen the fabric of Indian democracy, deepen its roots in ways that enable us to withstand assaults on democracy?

One of the most revolutionary things in this institutional endeavour was the ability to bureaucratise the notion of procedural equality, albeit for a very narrow purpose of authorising the government. That is that the vote of every person, every woman and man would have exactly the same weight. Doing so in such a hierarchical society as India was a revolutionary step, which entrenched electoral democracy.

As you mentioned earlier, before this moment it was people with property who had the right to vote. There were different lists for different communities. During the last election held during the colonial rule, there were five different voters’ lists just for women under different categories. So having one list for everyone was a dramatically equalising act. The formation of the list was, in that sense transformative for social existence in India. All this is was happening in anticipation of the constitution. In effect, Indians became voters before they became citizens with the commencement of this constitution, which institutionalised an electoral democracy.

Voters wait in queue to cast their votes during the first phase of UP Assembly polls in Meerut district. Credit: PTI

Indians first became voters and then citizens, unlike perhaps the experience of most nations where you are citizens first and then voters. Also, India’s experience of institutionalising universal franchise was not shared other colonial countries – for instance, you have mentioned Pakistan, a nation born out of the same colonial rule, but following a very different path. So how would you explain the different experiences of India and Pakistan in this context?

In Pakistan, basically the first two constituent assemblies and then governments couldn’t for a very long time even take a decision about the structure of the franchise. And if you don’t have a clear decision about the structure of the franchise, how can you even make electoral rolls?

Another significant feature of the success of the Indian experience was the way in which it was very quickly driven by the people

The following is the sequence of things. The constituent assembly adopted universal franchise in April 1947. There was no debate about that at the time. The bureaucrats at the secretariat of the constituent assembly, realising that the work would be colossal and that it would take a long time, decided to embark on the preparation of the rolls, to ensure that general elections could take place as soon as possible after the constitution would come into force.

The criteria for registration on the roll were seemingly simple. A person had to be a citizen, and to reside in the place of registration for a minimum of 180 days. But the question “who is an Indian”, who was a citizen at the time, was undecided and a very contested question. There were only draft constitutional provisions for citizenship

In effect, the most concrete way of being an Indian was to be on the electoral roll. This became very clear to people, especially to partition refugees. They started to struggle for a place on the roll in order to secure their democratic citizenship and voting rights. So the process of making universal franchise was driven by people struggling to make sure that they had a place on the roll, which meant a membership in the state.

There were many attempts of disenfranchisement at the local level or of breaching of the instructions of the Secretariat. People complained about these attempts through correspondences with the Secretariat of the Constituent Assembly. The Secretariat responded to every letter, and was fully accountable to every case that came to their desk and did their utmost to redress the problems they were made aware of.

Tell me about the inclusion of refugees in the voters’ list – particularly in the states of West Bengal, Assam, East Punjab.

It was not just an issue in these three states. There were refugees in many other parts of the country, including in the princely states. The solution for their registration was made on an all-India basis. In order to include them on the roll, they were registered at the time on the basis of the declaration by them that they intended to reside permanently in the place were they were registered.

There is often a misconception that electoral democracy stands in for an entire range of democratic values and norms.

It is important to distinguish between electoral democracy and democracy. They are not the same thing. Electoral democracy, doesn’t secure democracy, the norms, the values, the ideas. But a robust electoral system is a necessary precondition for a democracy.

Today in India we’ve often come to take electoral democracy for granted. But when one reads your book, one goes back to that moment when just getting the right to vote was so extraordinary. Is this experience integral to democracies, or in Indian democracy – where the memory of what was once liberating about the system fades and we begin taking the system for granted.

I actually think that when we compare India to other democracies, this is something that is kept very much alive and in India. When you see voter turnouts falling in western democracy, in India, it’s not like that. And it’s not just that the turnouts are strong? In the last elections it was one of the highest turnouts in the country, but you see who votes? It’s in fact the poor, lower backward castes, right? So it’s the people whom you expect to want and need change and for whom the vote matters. They are the ones who guard this electoral democracy. So in that sense, I think it’s difficult to talk about attrition of the system itself, but we do see that we are facing new challenges  in democracies at the moment. We live in a time of illiberal democracies, but the importance of the vote in India is still a very strong. Even in the 2000s in India, poor people were able to bring up and down governments and to try to authorise better ones in large turnouts. So the fact that people still feel that their vote matters  gives hope and it’s part of the solid system.

In your book you discuss how the draft constitution provision for each state to have its own election commission was amended at the last minute in favour of a single Election Commission. How and why did this happen?

The revised constitutional election provisions, which were brought before the Assembly on 15 June 1949, and which stipulated that the election machinery for all elections would be vested in a single Election Commission at the centre, aimed to ensure the autonomy and integrity of the election process. This was an amendment that was based on a note on the importance of the autonomy of the Election Commission that the Secretariat submitted to the drafting committee in May 1949. The note was largely driven by the experience of the preparation of rolls, particularly by the experiences of attempts at disenfranchisement that took place in some places in the process of the registration of voters. Indeed, when Ambedkar presented before the Assembly the new provisions he explained that the reason for the changes was to ensure that no person should be excluded as a result of the prejudice or whim of local officers of a local government.