In 1947, when India emerged as an independent state from the collapse of the British Indian Empire, it had few of the socioeconomic attributes usually seen as conducive to liberal democracy. Life expectancy at birth was 32 years, the overall literacy rate was 12 percent, and per capita GDP was about US$60. Nor had the British done much to promote democratic institutions. Faced with intensifying nationalist demands, they had grudgingly introduced democratic reforms. Yet even under the 1935 Government of India Act, voting was limited to just 12 percent of the adult population. Despite these odds, India successfully transitioned to democracy, holding the world's largest free and fair election within five years of gaining independence.
How did India's nationalist leaders overcome these hurdles? Ornit Shani's new book explores the means by which a group of administrators, constitutional lawyers, and politicians created India's democratic edifice. These people staffed or assisted in the work of the Constituent Assembly Secretariat (CAS), a critical postindependence body that oversaw the preparation of India's first draft electoral roll based on universal suffrage. The preparations that unfolded from 1947 to 1950 occurred as India confronted such fundamental tasks as how to define the criteria for citizenship and where to draw the borders of the state—when "'who is an Indian' was in question, and 'where is India' was in flux" (p. 129). [End Page 171]
Despite considerable scholarship on the evolution and consolidation of India's democracy, there has been until now no notable work on the monumental task that led to the forging of India's democratic constitution and the conduct of its first democratic election. Shani's contribution is not simply a tour d'horizon of the subject, but a veritable tour de force.
It must be underscored that this book is the result of painstaking archival work conducted at both the national and state levels in India. Shani draws on the more than 1,600 documents that she uncovered in the basement records room of the Election Commission of India. Together, these papers reveal the people and the decisions that shaped the preparation of the rolls. The CAS was a nonpartisan executive arm of the Constituent Assembly (1946–50)—the indirectly elected constitution-drafting body that, as the heart of an interim government tasked with making a number of fateful decisions, became in effect independent India's first national legislature. Situating her study within the pertinent secondary and theoretical literature, Shani meticulously reconstructs how the CAS worked with a range of entities to prepare the first national election, held from October 1951 to February 1952.
The CAS faced formidable challenges. It had to determine who qualified for citizenship and thus could vote. This was a herculean effort, for nearly twenty-million people had been displaced at the time of independence and partition. The CAS coordinated with civic organizations and state and provincial administrators to ensure that as many people as possible could be added to the electoral rolls. In a deeply conservative society, it had to surmount difficulties such as opposition to registering women as voters. The CAS staff, to its great credit, adopted the most inclusive approach it could to extending the franchise.
Shani discusses how the CAS dealt with state administrators who were loath to grant citizenship to individuals who had recently relocated from other states. The CAS determined that while states had authority to confer citizenship, they could not act in ways that contravened the rights guaranteed to all Indians under the emergent constitution. This inclusive outlook influenced local administrators. For example, in Bombay (now Mumbai), city officials estimated that as many as a hundred-thousand people lacked any fixed residence. Yet the CAS agreed with these officials that lacking a permanent "sleeping place" should and need not mean having no right to vote (209).
A nascent free press bolstered the CAS's efforts. Newspapers and CAS "press notes" were key in spreading the word about the creation of the new voter rolls. Press coverage made the process visible and helped to keep India's far-flung and not yet fully integrated territories "on the same page" about it (sometimes literally). This was particularly important in the nominally independent princely states, where few if any democratic reforms had taken place under British rule. Moreover, the Instrument of Accession that guided the merger of these states with independent India largely preserved [End Page 172] rulers' autonomy: They ceded control only of defense, foreign affairs, and communications. It was left to the new Indian state to persuade the erstwhile princes to treat their former subjects as citizens of India, with all the privileges that accompanied that status.
While Shani lauds the CAS, she does not overlook those who questioned the wisdom of adopting universal adult franchise at the outset. No less a figure than Rajendra Prasad, the Constituent Assembly's head and later India's first president, had misgivings. Speaking in October 1948, he worried that adult franchise might mean "putting educated and ignorant and honest and dishonest persons on the same footing" (106). He was hardly alone in this concern. Many educated Indians expressed skepticism about putting ballots in the hands of those whom they believed did not grasp the significance of democratic governance. Similar reservations were expressed about setting the voting age at 21 and thus asking young people to exercise mature judgment amid the "hectic days of electioneering" (107). All these doubts and more received an airing, yet the CAS moved forward with the broad extension of the franchise.
Were there any limits, then, to these attempts at inclusion? There were indeed exceptions, some distinctly antidemocratic, that affected an estimated 2.5 million Indians. Certain tribal areas in India's far northeast were excluded for a number of reasons. Indigenous people on the Andaman and Nicobar Islands off India's east coast were also left off the rolls, based on the assertion that they lacked the intellectual sophistication to vote.
National-security concerns spurred other exclusions. For example, the entire state of Jammu and Kashmir, on which Pakistan had made an irredentist claim prior to launching a war in 1947, was left off the rolls. Here Shani highlights a little-known fact: The state's residents took no part in India's first three national elections. Instead, President Prasad filled six parliamentary seats with nominees commissioned to represent Jammu and Kashmir. Finally, individuals who had fled India for Pakistan around the time of partition and who had failed to return by July 1949 were denied citizenship and thus the right to vote.
These limits aside, Shani concludes that the "tenacity of inclusion" the CAS showed in preparing the rolls was "unsurpassed" (251). She correctly argues that the colossal task of gearing up for the exercise of universal adult franchise contributed to the political mobilization of India's vast potential electorate. Despite low levels of literacy, widespread poverty, and an entrenched caste system, Indians quickly came to grasp the significance of the ballot. As Shani notes, "Indians were voters before they became citizens" (251).
It seems almost churlish to find fault with a work that is built on such carefully compiled evidence, in concert with a lucid and compelling argument. Yet there are two significant lacunae in this otherwise impressive book. By focusing on the actions of postindependence bureaucrats, politicians, and institutions, Shani pays scant attention to the critical role that [End Page 173] India's principal nationalist organization, the Indian National Congress, had played in deftly mobilizing large segments of the population prior to independence. More to the point, she does not discuss how democratic norms had become embedded within the tremendously influential Congress well before India threw off the yoke of colonial rule. Over decades, those who would comprise India's postindependence political elite had become used to democratic norms of discussion, debate, and compromise. These habits no doubt framed efforts to craft the new and far more inclusive electoral system. Any work that seeks to explain how India became a democracy must explicitly acknowledge this crucial legacy from colonial-era nationalism.
Similarly, Shani largely overlooks the exemplary role that Mohandas K. Gandhi's nonviolent civil-disobedience movement played in enabling large numbers of Indians to grasp the significance of civic action well before independence. At both elite and popular levels, Indians had been primed to seize the opportunity to participate in a free and fair election based on the universal adult franchise.
Since the first general election in 1951–52 with its more than 170 million eligible voters, India has steadily boosted electoral participation. Whatever the myriad shortcomings of India's democracy, there is no gainsaying the role of popular participation. In 2014, the year of the most recent general election, turnout was a record 66.4 percent. Notably and indeed remarkably, as political scientist Christophe Jaffrelot and anthropologist Mukulika Banerjee have both shown on the basis of electoral surveys and ethnographic research, it is the poor and the lower castes who are the most reliable voters.
In 2019, when the next (and seventeenth) general election is held, more than 850 million Indians will be eligible to vote. In this vital work of scholarship, Ornit Shani shows how one dedicated group of men and women, against almost insuperable odds, ushered in this unprecedented democratic project.
Sumit Ganguly is professor of political science at Indiana University–Bloomington. His most recent book (with William R. Thompson) is Ascending India and Its State Capacity: Extraction, Violence, and Legitimacy (2017).