Few people get to tell a fundamentally important new story. This is what Ornit Shani does in her second book, How India Became Democratic, in which she reveals the extraordinary tale of a handful of Indian bureaucrats who drew up India’s first electoral rolls, before India had adopted a Constitution and therefore a definition of who was a citizen.
As early as September 1947, the Constituent Assembly Secretariat (CAS) was tasked with registering Indian adults into the country’s first electoral rolls. As of then and since the Government of India Act of 1935, only a few million Indians had been given the right to vote. Within two months, and on the basis of a very provisional Constitution, the CAS engaged in a process of consultations with state and provincial governments on how to go about this massive exercise.
The challenges were enormous. What was to be done with the millions of refugees who had poured in since Partition? How was proof of adulthood to be established in a country where most did not possess identification documents? How was a largely illiterate population to be brought into a new democratic system that was yet to be put in place? And finally, how was a national register to be built in a territory that was yet to be fully integrated?
The story that Ornit Shani narrates goes beyond the technocratic tale of how such difficulties were dealt with and eventually overcome. Rather, she chronicles a tale of democratic imagination, of a task force that not only grasped the stakes of the task ahead, but also understood that in order to be legitimate, the process of building India’s electorate had to be a project that the people and the bureaucracy normatively adhered to in the first place.
To generate this adhesion, the members of the CAS ensured that the process was transparent, accountable, consultative and even deliberative. They engaged in a dense correspondence with local provincial administrators, seeking feedback on the obstacles met with during voters’ registration.
The CAS also corresponded with a large number of civil society organizations — citizen, professional (tea growers associations, trade unions or bar associations), and political — which also helped flag discrepancies and issues linked to voters’ registration.
Beyond that, the CAS published a series of press notes, which not only detailed the practicality of registering voters but also told stories — real-life stories of people registering — and what the act of registering as a voter meant to them. In short, they turned a bureaucratic act into a serialised epic that caught the popular imagination and ensured wide adhesion to the project of building a democratic society and contributed to making India a unified territory in the mind of people.
Drawing up the electoral rolls also constituted a rehearsal for setting up India’s federal structure. The preparation of rolls was a state-building exercise on the largest possible scale in terms of population and territorial reach. It made the integration of states concrete, sometimes even before territorial integration had actually taken place. It created a de facto constitutional and administrative template for the Indian federation.
Finally, the whole process of registering voters also informed the Constituent Assembly about a number of issues, notably the treatment reserved to refugees with regard to the definition of citizenship. This breaks the myth that India’s Constitution, or its democracy at large, was bestowed on Indians in a purely top-down process. It is remarkable that in the absence of legislation or adopted constitutional provisions on citizenship, the bureaucrats of the CAS took it upon themselves to be as inclusive as possible, by default.
On the eve of the 1951 General Elections, 173 million citizens were registered, and 61 per cent turned out at the polling stations, in what was already one of the world’s largest democratic exercises.
How India Became Democratic makes a number of significant contributions. The first is to the literature on India’s democratic transition. Most scholars highlight the continuities between the colonial state and the Independent states as an explanatory factor for the rooting of democracy in India: continuities in constitutional architecture, bureaucratic structures and bureaucratic practices. Ornit Shani shows that while there were indeed elements of continuity between the colonial and postcolonial bureaucracies, there were also functionaries capable of breaking away from colonial practice, of imagining and, therefore, anticipating a democratic framework of bureaucratic functioning.
The book also highlights the role played by mid- and lower-level bureaucrats, who have been overlooked by most scholars. These bureaucrats were more than cogs in the state machinery; they were active participants in and contributors to a giant rehearsal of democracy.
A second contribution concerns the process of Constitution-making. Far from being an exclusively elite-driven top-down process, Ornit Shani shows that the Constituent Assembly was open to fact and information provided from the lower echelons for the conduct of its proceedings.
Finally, Ornit Shani portrays an Indian administration that we hardly recognise today: professional, humble, consultative, democratic in its way of functioning and pedagogical about the objectives it pursues. By the accounts we have of its functioning today, India’s ground-level bureaucracy seems characterised by opacity, arbitrariness, authoritarianism, unaccountability and lack of imagination. Ornit Shani’s story also reminds us by contrast of how little pedagogy there is about policy in India today, and that while governments excel in communicating about their schemes, they do not provide much explanation on how they plan to actually meet their objectives.