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How India Became Democratic: Citizenship and the Making of the Universal Franchise. By Ornit Shani. New Delhi: Penguin Random House, 2018. 284 pp

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...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1086-3214
Print ISSN
1045-5736
Pages
pp. 171-174
Launched on MUSE
2018-07-12
Open Access
No
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