Making of electoral democracy was a massive task, yet India was inclusive, says Ornit Shani

| TNN | Jan 14, 2018, 01:00 IST
Photo credit: Iris Hassid 
Photo credit: Iris Hassid
The making of universal adult franchise in India during 1947-1950 was one of the greatest experiments in democratic history. Ornit Shani, author of the new book How India Became Democratic, speaks to Amulya Gopalakrishnan about those momentous years
Why was it such a massive feat for India to adopt universal adult franchise?

The Constituent Assembly of India agreed on the adoption of universal adult franchise in April 1947. But the practical process of turning all adult Indians into voters — enrolling the most gigantic electorate in the world — had to be achieved against many overwhelming odds. It was done in the midst of the Partition that rendered about 18 million people refugees; then there were 552 sovereign princely states whose subjects had not identified themselves as Indians; about 85% of the future electorate was illiterate; and 50% were women, many of whom did not recognise themselves as individuals, but as a 'wife of' or 'daughter of'. Moreover, this had to be achieved in the face of deep social divisions and widespread poverty. Finally, universal franchise was no legacy of colonial rule. Colonial bureaucrats held the position that beyond being a bad fit for India, it would also be impracticable and an impossible task.

You show how Indians became voters before becoming citizens. Could you elaborate?

The Constituent Assembly Secretariat, the non-partisan executive branch of the Assembly, in anticipation of the Constitution being finally framed and approved, undertook from November 1947 the practical steps needed for the preparation of electoral rolls on the basis of universal adult franchise. These outstanding bureaucrats recognised that the work involved was 'colossal', and had to be undertaken forthwith to ensure that the general elections could be held as early as possible after the Constitution came into force. A voter, according to a key criterion in the instructions they devised, had to be a citizen. But the citizenship provisions were only agreed on in August 1949. So, while 'who is an Indian' was still a contested question, especially for Partition refugees, securing a place on the roll became a way for people to secure their membership in the nation. The enrolment engendered struggles for citizenship from below, as people from the margins fought for their citizenship and voting rights, through a place on the electoral roll. The first draft electoral roll was ready just before the enactment of the Constitution. So yes, Indians became voters before they were citizens.

How radical was the idea of one-person-one-vote in a nation with many hierarchies?

The institutionalisation of procedural equality was revolutionary. It came about from the many interactions of the Secretariat of the Constituent Assembly that, under the leadership of Constitutional Adviser B N Rao, oversaw this operation,with people. The Secretariat, whose work has largely been lost to history, aimed to prepare an accurate list of all adult Indians. They were inclusive, accountable, and responsive to every complaint or grievance. Their commitment to procedural equality sometimes resulted in bureaucrats taking proactive steps to ensure the voting rights of those at the very margins of society such as vagrants, domestic help and footpath dwellers. For example, in November 1948, the collector of Bombay wrote to the chief secretary, asking whether the following categories of persons should qualify for enrolment: 'a vagrant lives in a hut erected on municipal land without permission, pays no rent but lives with his family in the hut; a person who works in the mill, and sleeps on the footpath'. The decision was that vagrants, servants and people who sleep on balconies, staircases and rear passages were eligible for inclusion. But people sleeping on footpaths were not included.

Why is the Election Commission (EC) such a critical institution?

The draft Constitution of 1948 provided for one EC for the central legislature and separate ECs for each of the states. Yet the article that came up for discussion in the Assembly on June 15, 1949, stipulated that the machinery for all elections to Parliament and state legislatures would be vested in a single central EC. This radical change was largely driven by the experience of the preparation of electoral rolls on the ground and by the information about attempts at disenfranchisement, and breaches of the Secretariat's instructions by provincial governments. The Secretariat helped bring about these far-reaching changes in the final Constitution, which ensured that the election management body would be independent of the government of the day.

How does that formative moment in India speak to our current situation?

It's an inspiring story, and hasn't been told so far. It is located just beyond the grasp of living memory — the generation that brought Independence is largely not alive. At this dire time for democracy in India and elsewhere in the world, this is an opportunity to appreciate an extraordinary juncture, in which Indians made electoral democracy for their own country and society. They did so against many odds with an immense imagination and inventiveness. It offers a basis for reconnecting people with the ideals of democracy.