Paradox of the vote

By granting instant universal suffrage, India gave itself a nation-building tool. But it also hurt state-building and state-capacity

Written by Swati Ramanathan , Ramesh Ramanathan | Updated: August 9, 2017 12:10:12 am
Illustration by C R Sasikumar

The authors of India’s Constitution took the extraordinarily bold step of giving all adult citizens the right to vote, making India the world’s first large democracy to adopt universal adult suffrage from its very inception. We call India’s move “instant universal suffrage”, to distinguish it from “incremental suffrage” when the vote is extended more gradually — what happened in nearly all Western democracies.

We claim that instant universal suffrage has been key to India’s national survival — a point that the vast literature on Indian democracy surprisingly overlooks. But we also argue that it has weakened the Indian state’s capacity to deliver public goods. This is the paradox of instant universal suffrage: A great nation-building and nation-preserving tool, but one that has hurt state-building and state capacity. The incremental extension of suffrage in the manner seen in US or British history might have strengthened state capacity in India. But it would have risked the very survival of India as a nation.

Alexander Keyssar, in his book, The Right to Vote, described the long journey to universal adult suffrage in the US, one replete with conflicts of both interests and ideas. “Admit this equal right,” John Adams wrote, “and an immediate revolution would ensue. Women will demand a vote, and every man, who has not a farthing, will demand an equal voice.” These arguments were topics of wide public debate.

Large cultivators wanted to keep the franchise narrow, while tenant farmers and labourers (not to mention African Americans and women) fought for the expansion of political rights. Similarly, landowners preferred to see the franchise depend on freehold ownership, while city dwellers and shopkeepers wanted taxpaying qualifications. Only in the 1960s did the US cross the final frontiers of universal adult suffrage.

In the United Kingdom, the path to universal suffrage was equally tortuous. The 1832 passage of the First Reform Act was the result of a long political battle. A government (led by the hero of Waterloo, the Duke of Wellington, as prime minister) had fallen over the issue, and there had been widespread protests — to extend the franchise to barely 18 per cent of adult men. The Second Reform Act, which passed in 1867, boosted that figure to 32 per cent. In 1918, late in the First World War, Parliament extended the franchise to women aged 30 and who could meet minimal property qualifications, as well as all men 21 and above. Ten years after that, all women 21 and over received the right to vote. The processes of incremental suffrage expansion shaped the political systems of these countries in many ways. They defined the (changing) priorities of elected governments. This in turn framed the capacities of public institutions, to deliver on these priorities.

As new priorities arose (with new voter demands), public institutions had to be created or overhauled to suit them. Along with this came issues related to accountability: Were these institutions delivering on government priorities? What could voters do to hold governments and public institutions answerable, not only at election time, but all the time?

The fight to expand voting rights also taught different classes and groups profound lessons in the areas of mobilisation and political competition. All groups — the propertied and privileged, the middle classes, the poor and marginalised, and various minorities — learned to forge alliances and reach accommodations in service of their goals.

In sharp contrast to the Western slow-walk of incrementalism, India made a giant political leap, vaulting straight into universal adult suffrage with none of the intervening conflicts. Under the British, only a small share of India’s population — never more than 12 per cent — had received voting rights, primarily in two large-scale elections: First in 1937 to choose legislative bodies for eleven provinces of British India, and the second in 1945-46. The “princely” states — which held about a fourth of India’s population — had virtually no elections before Independence.

Against this background of almost no voting until 1947, the practice of universal suffrage had by the 1950s become fully established across the country. The transition came with jaw-dropping speed: Before Indians could even get used to the idea of elections, they were going to the polls regularly to fill numerous national and state legislative seats. In the 70 years since, Indians have voted in thousands of elections across national, state and local levels, casting billions of votes — a remarkable testament to the endurance of our electoral democracy.

Starting points matter, and political systems the world over evolve in path-dependent ways. Just as incremental suffrage shaped the political systems of those countries where it was the rule, so has instant universal suffrage had a unique impact on India. In our view, instant universal suffrage has weakened the capacity of India’s public institutions.

The challenges of nation-building in 1947 and beyond — enduring the massive violence and population displacements of Partition, stitching the various princely states into the Union, ratifying the Constitution, setting up state governments, surviving wars with China and Pakistan, coping with insurgencies — put a premium on the design and functioning of national institutions, and that too with minimal accountability.

India’s bureaucracy was a continuation of the British Raj. It was more a machine for keeping order than an instrument of development attuned to citizens’ demands. In 1947, moreover, barely 18 per cent of Indian voters were literate. People were just learning to vote, let alone grasping how government worked and laying out coherent demands to keep government accountable.

With so much focus on national priorities, governance capacities in the states suffered, especially related to education and health. Another critical deficiency arose at the local level. Here, the source of resistance was B.R. Ambedkar himself. A friend of robust governance at the Central and state levels, he nonetheless retained a deep suspicion of rural panchayats, that they would serve upper-caste interests, or of those with land and education. India’s cities felt the effects of instant universal suffrage as well, with insufficient voting muscle in a predominantly rural democracy to generate serious pressure for strong urban governments.

A regime of incremental suffrage extension would likely have empowered local institutions and built their capacities. A heavily upper- and middle-class electorate would have focused on local provision of public goods such as healthcare, education, civic facilities, and the like. Empowered, educated, and tax-paying elite and middle-class voters would have demanded routine and systematic accountability as well, as they did in incremental suffrage regimes. As the electorate widened gradually, public institutions would have had time to grow and improve with a commensurate deliberateness. All this would almost surely have made governance more effective, but at the heavy cost to democracy of giving upper-caste biases and arrangements ample time and opportunity to cement themselves in place.

Yet all this will remain in the realm of the speculative. What actually happened in India was something different altogether. The government did not receive time to build capacity gradually. Instead, it was expected to provide basic public goods right from the outset, and quickly failed at this overwhelming task. Seeing this, the upper and middle classes backed away, choosing private services and giving up the idea of demanding that government meet their needs in the areas of education, healthcare, transportation, or the like.

The consequences have been major, and — most importantly — are ongoing. For one, they shape public-service provision (or its lack) today, and will continue to do so into the future. The withdrawal of the middle class and elites from seeking public provision of such key public goods as education and healthcare, for instance, has made the emergence of a US- or European-style welfare state unlikely in India. Instead, India will probably witness the creation of new “partnership” mechanisms driven by state obligations to citizens but non-state provision of these services.

These arrangements will still place different demands on state capacity: To establish and enforce such joint arrangements. Whether the Indian state can rise to this challenge remains to be seen. Over the coming decades, the answer to this question will have significant implications for the trajectory of development of the world’s largest democracy — an improbable path set in motion by one profound choice at our national inception: Instant universal suffrage.


The writers are co-founders of Jana Group. This is a condensed version of a paper in the July 2017 issue of the ‘Journal of Democracy’

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