How Indians got the vote

The country’s first election was an ingeniously indigenous an inventive exercise, with unique challenges. The way bureaucracy rose to the task holds lessons for today.

Written by Ornit Shani | Updated: February 15, 2018 12:20:43 am
The numerous interactions between people and administrators about the preparation of the first draft electoral rolls on the basis of adult franchise were significant for the institutionalisation of India’s democracy. (Illustration: CR Sasikumar)

Studies of India’s electoral democracy have tended to see it as an inheritance of the British Raj or a product of an elite decision-making and institutional design. In this perspective, democracy and the Constitution were endowed from above. The people had little or no role in making democracy or the Constitution. New archival materials reveal a different, and hitherto unknown, story.

The origin of Indian democracy, in particular the establishment of its edifice through the implementation of universal adult franchise, was an ingeniously Indian enterprise. It was no legacy of colonial rule, and was largely driven by the Indians, often by people of modest means. The turning of all adults into voters was a staggering democratic state-building operation of inclusion and scale, which surpassed any previous experience in democratic world history. This work was undertaken by Indian bureaucrats between August 1947, when the country became independent, and January 1950, when it adopted the Constitution.

The numerous interactions between people and administrators about the preparation of the first draft electoral rolls on the basis of adult franchise were significant for the institutionalisation of India’s democracy. Making procedural equality central to government formation in a hierarchical and unequal society turned electoral democracy into a meaningful and credible story for citizens. Because people from the margins found meaning and a place for themselves in the new polity based on universal adult franchise, they also understood the potential new power of making group identity claims. The SCs and STs turned into voters and could now, under universal franchise, fully partake in the compulsions of electoral politics. The successful implementation of universal franchise by the time the Constitution came into force enabled the insertion of social identities into the design of political representation. Here lay the seeds of the dynamic caste and identity politics, which have both deepened and challenged electoral politics in India.

Through the preparation of electoral rolls, the abstract language, forms and principles of the democratic Constitution obtained a practical basis. The Draft Constitution provided for one election commission for elections to the central legislature and for separate election commissions for each of the states. The final provision, which was informed by the experience of the preparation of the electoral rolls, stipulated an election machinery that was vested in a single autonomous election commission at the Centre.

The principle of universal franchise was adopted at the beginning of the constitutional debates in April 1947. It was a significant departure from elections under colonial rule, which were based on a very limited franchise and a divided electorate. There was a large gap to bridge in turning this constitutional aspiration into reality at Independence, in the midst of the Partition that led to mass killings and the displacement of an estimated 18 million people, while 552 princely states had yet to be integrated into India. The vast majority of the future and largest electorate in history at the time of over 173 million people was poor and illiterate. Realising that the task would be colossal, a few bureaucrats at the secretariat of the Constituent Assembly initiated the preparation of the electoral rolls from November 1947.

The secretariat designed the instructions for the preparation of rolls in consultation with administrators from the provinces and the princely states. In effect, their task was to operationalise the notion of procedural equality for the purpose of electoral voting. They had to imagine a joint list of all adults in the land — women and men of all castes and classes — each carrying the same weight as equal voters. This task was, in essence, revolutionary. The commitment to procedural equality that was cultivated in the process of the preparation of the electoral rolls was strikingly demonstrated when the collector of Bombay, for example, took in November 1948 proactive steps to ensure the voting rights of vagrants, servants and footpath dwellers.

Unsurprisingly, once the actual registration of voters began, distinct forms of disenfranchisement, breaches in the instructions and difficulties surfaced on the ground. In Assam, for example, the reforms commissioner did not initially regard refugees and immigrants as prospective citizens-voters and he instructed district officers not to register “the floating and ‘non-resident’ population”.

In the face of exclusionary practices in the preparation of rolls, a wide range of burgeoning citizens’ organisations began struggling for their voting rights. They wrote numerous letters of complaints to the secretariat, indicating that the provisions and directions that they issued in the pursuit of universal franchise were being undermined on the ground in the preparation of the rolls. Citizens’ organisations also began to demand linking voter’s registration with the acquisition of citizenship. To do so they made their claims on the basis of the Draft Constitution’s citizenship and other provisions, using the Constitution’s language and aspirations, while it was still in the making. Thus, a complaint against the reforms commissioner of Assam suggested that his attitude “definitely engenders civic and political status of a very large number of residents in Assam who are very eager to have their status as citizens of Indian Dominion confirmed during the course of enrolments votes. Our association thinks that enrolment as voters, ipso facto, invests the person so enrolled with the status of a citizen”.

People understood that a “place on the roll” was the most concrete way at the time to secure membership in the new state. It was their title deed to democracy. The responsiveness of the civil service empowered them to do so. The bureaucrats of the secretariat replied to every letter that arrived at their desk. They took actions to redress the problems that arose. In this process, they mentored bureaucrats at all levels and ordinary citizens into the principles of electoral democracy and universal franchise.

The inventive ways in which Indians made their democracy did not necessarily mean that India would become better than other democracies, nor immune from the problems that have beset democracies elsewhere. Indeed, India’s democracy fell short of its constitutional promises, for example, to promote social and economic equality. The rise of belligerent Hindu nationalism has beset its democratic public life and institutions. In these challenging times, when the values and institutions of democracy are under threat, learning about and gaining a new appreciation of how India became democratic might inspire fresh energy for the challenges of the present.

Shani is a senior lecturer at the Department of Asian Studies, University of Haifa. She is the author of ‘How India Became Democratic: Citizenship and the Making of the Universal Franchise’

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