Imagining India's Universal Franchise

A review of Ornit Shani's How India Became Democratic: Citizenship and the Making of the Universal Franchise

One often-repeated remark about India is that it is a most unlikely setting for a thriving democracy. How did a poor country with incredible diversity and a population with low levels of education manage to celebrate 70 years of independence last year? While many social scientists have studied this question, Ornit Shani, a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Asian Studies at the University of Haifa, is interested in a more fundamental question: not how democracy has persisted in India, but how it was born. Using extensive archival research, fresh historical insights, and proceeding through a largely convincing narrative, Shani’s pathbreaking book argues that the traditional top-down story of Indian democratization may have it backwards: “ordinary people had a significant role in establishing democracy in India at its inception” (5).

The impetus for this book, described in the Introduction, was a question that Shani had vainly posed several times over the years to Indian officials: how was the voter roll for India’s first election prepared, especially against the tumultuous backdrop of Partition? This electoral roll featured 173 million people – most of whom had no experience with voting or democracy – and was based on the principle of universal adult franchise. The traditional story is that democracy in India was a “gift from above” – nurtured through British rule, with colonial officials slowly expanding the franchise, and India’s postcolonial leaders completing the task. Shani rejects this argument on the first page of her book: “This [preparing the first voter roll] was no legacy of colonial rule: Indians imagined the universal franchise for themselves, acted on this imaginary, and made it their political reality” (1). The British, after all, had only allowed limited suffrage, and were opposed to the idea that the vote should be expanded to the entire adult population.

So how was the first voter roll actually prepared? Like many major historical undertakings, there was a considerable amount of chance involved. The main administrative organization in charge of the preparation of the voter roll was the Constituent Assembly Secretariat (CAS). The CAS began by writing to the premiers of the provinces and the princely states (at this time, India was still integrating over 500 native states into the union) and asked them to “imagine” the voter roll (this term takes on a lot of significance in Shani’s book). The premiers wrote back with various ideas, and the most detailed plan – developed by the princely state of Travancore (another example of how we may have overstated British contributions to Indian democratization) – was chosen and then implemented on a nationwide scale.

The first voter roll was created with certain criteria in mind: voters had to be citizens (although the constitution was not yet adopted, so the citizenship provision was based on the draft constitution), over 21, of sound mind, residents of India, and they must have been living in their place of residence for a specified time. Determining all of this was, of course, an administrative nightmare. The nonpartisan officials at the CAS methodically dealt with thorny issue after thorny issue. In Chapter 2, Shani studies how the government resolved the issue of voting eligibility for Partition refugees, many of whom could not meet the domicile requirements. Chapter 4 describes the question of voters in the princely states, as well as legal debates about whether the costs of preparing the roll (e.g., printing reams and reams of paper) would be shared equally between princely governments and the Indian central government. Chapter 6 details the limits of the CAS’ otherwise inclusive model of the franchise: some groups were excluded, such as certain tribes, and those Indians who “slept on footpaths” and therefore had no clear domicile (210).

Shani produces this narrative by drawing on a rich set of primary source materials from a variety of archives: the record room of the Election Commission of India, National Archives of India, Nehru Memorial and Museum Library, Maharashtra State Archives, India Office Collections at the British Library, and collections from the Centre for South Asian Studies, Cambridge. In taking us through the minutia of the CAS’ construction of the first voter roll, Shani’s goal is to provide a new bottom-up perspective on Indian democratization. In fact, it is remarkable how seldom a name like “Nehru” appears in the book. Instead, we learn about other figures like B.N. Rau, the leader of the CAS and a largely overlooked character in the study of India’s democratization. We learn that Rau’s CAS created a number of “press notes” that explained the process of the development of the first voter roll to the Indian public, and that the CAS was in turn lobbied by a variety of citizens groups on behalf of voters from specific communities. When the CAS ran into difficulties, they sought multiple opinions, tried to create consensus, and rarely acted in an ad hoc fashion. We learn that the Indian press also reported on the development of the voter roll, and that ordinary citizens wrote in to newspapers to comment on the process. All of this, Shani argues, was the very process of democratic state building – how India became democratic was through the preparation of the first voter roll. This process helped in “forging a sense of national unity and national feeling, turned the notion of people’s belonging to something tangible. They [Indians] became the focus of the new state’s leap of faith, in which they now had a stake” (7).

Shani’s mass-led theory of Indian democratization is a welcome addition to counterbalance existing views that focus on elites, but it is not without weaknesses. The biggest question is whether Shani is correct about the role that the Indian people played in the creation of their own democracy. At times, this theory seems overstated. For example, Shani argues that ordinary Indians were attuned to the process of the creation of the first voter roll based on evidence from press notes, newspaper clippings, and op-eds. But the vast majority of Indians were illiterate. So how did all of this affect them? Shani only makes brief reference to this by noting that in Indian culture, newspapers are often read aloud in public settings like tea shops (88). Considering the size of the claim she is making here, this scant evidence is not very convincing.  

Relatedly, in Chapter 3, Shani discusses how the universal franchise became “personalised” – that is, how the universal franchise came to “attain meaning and enter the political imagination of Indians” (86). In describing this process, Shani uses the term “serialised epic” – drawing an analogy with the Hindu epics that are well known across India and are often recited in public settings. This analogy is tenuous: the Hindu epics are popular narratives, but press notes and op-eds are largely elite narratives. Did ordinary Indians – especially those in rural areas, far from newspaper headquarters and English radio – really help to imagine the birth of Indian democracy? Perhaps requiring an answer to this question is asking too much, as most scholars have not even seriously considered the possibility that Indians were actively involved in setting up their own democracy. Nevertheless, the views and actions of ordinary Indians still seem uncertain despite Shani’s arguments.

On the whole, How India Became Democratic is a major contribution to the study of Indian democracy, modern Indian history, and the study of democratization more broadly. It should be required reading for students of Indian democracy. Future scholars can profitably expand on Shani’s work, which is the first foray into the study of ordinary Indians and their contributions to a democracy that has now withstood the test of seven decades.

Ajay Verghese is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of California, Riverside. His research interests include Indian politics, ethnicity, political violence, historical legacies, and religion. His first book, The Colonial Origins of Ethnic Violence in India, was published by Stanford University Press in 2016, and his articles are published or forthcoming in Modern Asian Studies, Terrorism and Political Violence, and Journal of Development Studies. From 2017-18 he was a Fulbright-Nehru scholar in India doing research for a book on secularization in Hinduism. 

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