How India Became Democratic book review: Ornit Shani unravels how the first electoral rolls were made

That the Election Commission of India is one of the most efficient and professional State institutions is accepted by all. While many institutions have failed the test of times, the Election Commission has metamorphosed from a mere election conducting body to the conscience keeper of Indian democracy. But while the world at large witnessed the electoral process bloom under the tutelage of Election Commission, few ever pondered over the origins of universal adult franchise in India.

The lack of literature on India’s tryst with universal adult franchise prompted Ornit Shani, a senior lecturer of Politics at Haifa University, to do research on the making of India’s first electoral roll and how it laid the foundation for a robust democracy in the country. After years of research, what she finally came out with the book, How India became democratic: Citizenship and the making of the universal adult franchise.

“I had questioned senior election officials over how the first electoral rolls were made, but I never got a satisfactory response. That small question actually led to this book,” Shani, the Israeli academician, told Firstpost.

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Ornit Shani gives refreshing accounts of the financial considerations of the provincial authorities while completing the enrollment

Electoral process, not colonial vestige

Her book is the result of extensive research into the archival material of the Election Commission, National Archives of India and the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library. Scouting through previously unexplored material, Shani realised that the electoral process that was established after Independence was a total Indian affair, and not a colonial vestige.

The electoral system has often been considered a colonial gift, since our models of governance are deeply influenced by the British system.

The founding fathers, as the book notes, envisaged a democratic India. What separated India from other democracies, however, was the immediate implementation of universal adult franchise.

For an underdeveloped country like India, reeling under the macabre memories of Partition, the idea of ‘one nation, one vote’ was path breaking. It is the manner in which every eligible Indian was enfranchised that makes the process a truly Indian affair, noted Shani.

But the Constituent Assembly Secretariat had a tough time ensuring that every eligible man and woman was registered in the electoral roll. The book narrates several stories which highlight the difficulties faced by the constituent provinces while enrolling people over the age of 21. From women refusing to identify themselves separately from their husbands, to people not knowing their exact birth year, several stories reflect the socio-cultural peculiarities of pre-Independent India.

The people's involvement

The book argues that the process of enrollment in the electoral rolls not only involved the Constituent Assembly and the provincial governments, but also the common people, who fought for their enfranchisement in the democratic process. Consequently, universal adult franchise also gave a sense of identity to people, especially to those who belonged to the lower rungs of the society.

The idea of having a place in the electoral roll was linked to the idea of citizenship in the provinces of Punjab, Assam and West Bengal, where lakhs of Partition refugees were living in temporary camps. Without a permanent home, citizenship, as noted by Shani, was debated and contested by refugee organisations, which helped in solidifying India’s democracy.

Instead of wading into matters of ideology and ideals, Shani gives refreshing accounts of the financial considerations of the provincial authorities while completing the enrollment. The provinces wrote letters to Union government, urging it to share the expenses of the project, in a way accepting the superiority of the Centre and establishing the future terms of Centre-state relations.

A scholarly work

Shani’s book is the ultimate tribute to the unsung heroes of the Constituent Assembly Secretariat, who devised and implemented the plan to enfranchise over 170 million Indians. The book is replete with anecdotes of people like BN Rau, KV Padmanabhan, SN Mukherjee and PS Subramaniam, who worked behind-the-scenes to make modern India democratic.

The enormity of the challenges that India’s unsung heroes faced while completing the gargantuan task, as covered by the book, will serve as an inspiration to modern citizens to value India’s democracy, which many often like to flaunt as a sort of achievement but seldom utilise to effect positive change in the society.

Reading the anecdotes of citizen groups actively participating in enrolment processes will make the reader draw instant parallels with the current scenario, where poor Indians are more politically assertive than the rich and the upper middle class, who are often criticised for not voting in large numbers.

For those accustomed to reading popular histories, this book may disappoint since it is a work of meticulous scholarship. Reading through the introduction and conclusion of each chapter, a reader will come to appreciate the author’s ability to articulate her views on the subject. There are pages where the footnotes occupy most of the space but if one goes through them carefully, many interesting bits of archival information will emerge.

The only major drawback with the book is its apparent verbosity at many places, but verbosity is a common aspect of scholarly works. The intensive research and the uniqueness of the book’s theme, nevertheless, overshadows the problem.

Shani told this author that she is already working on the sequel to the book, which will talk about how the first Lok Sabha elections in 1951-52 were conducted. Shani’s upcoming book, along with her latest, will enrich the literature on Indian electoral history.

Also read on Firstpost: The first, second, third and fourth part of The Indian Constitutional Law and Philosophy Blog's discussion about Ornit Shani's book, How India Became Democratic. In this series, subject matter experts discuss the claims and implications of the themes presented in the book, along with a response by the author herself.

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Updated Date: Mar 27, 2018 11:56:55 IST

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