Ornit Shani On Why The Election Commission’s Independence Is Of Utmost Importance

The author of ‘How India Became Democratic: Citizenship and the Making of the Universal Franchise’ explains the creation of India’s first electoral roll.

Ornit Shani pulled off the ambitious task of telling the story of how India’s first electoral roll was created in her 2018 book How India Became Democratic: Citizenship and the Making of the Universal Franchise. The process, she said, happened even before the creation of the Constitution even as she debunked the popular belief that it was a legacy of the British Raj.

When I started, it was with a simple question to which I did not get a satisfactory answer—how did India prepare its first list of voters?” said Shani, on how she began chronicling the birth of the world’s largest democracy.

Shani, who teaches at the University of Haifa in Israel, is participating in the ZEE Jaipur Literature Festival this year. In a telephonic interview, she spoke about the discoveries she made while writing her book and why universal franchise was one of the biggest acts of decolonisation.

You explore Indian democracy and franchise in your book. This was a huge and ambitious task to take up. What inspired you to do it?

It was indeed a huge subject, but when I started, it was with a simple question to which I did not get a satisfactory answer—how did India prepare its first list of voters? As context, I have been part of an annual conference in Cambridge on the electoral democracy in the Commonwealth. I was working on citizenship at the time of Indian independence and partition, and it was then that I posed this question. The advice I received was to look at the report on the first election. The report is a fantastic one, but there are a few paragraphs and nothing more that said that the Constituent Assembly Secretariat (CAS) began to take steps towards the roll in 1947. And I realised there was a huge story here. I wanted to understand this story fully and tell it.

“Colonial bureaucrats could not even imagine the idea of universal franchise for India.”

How did you do the research for this book? Did you discover anything that surprised you?

There were many things that surprised me. Going through the archival files and finding a story hitherto untold, was the first. Two things that struck me when looking through the files were:

I found a letter by the Collector of Bombay who wrote to the Secretary of the Government of Bombay in March 1949. He explained that they were collecting names for the roll in Bombay and surrounding areas, but that they have a lot of pavement dwellers and domestic help who did not have a fixed address. The letter asked what was to be done about them. The idea was that if we are talking about universal franchise, then even these people were entitled. This type of detailing of people, who were otherwise invisible, was amazing. I think it was striking writing because it showed a twist in the bureaucratic imagination and the perception of how universal franchise should be carried out.

The second was that the process of making the electoral roll, in anticipation of the making of the Constitution, actually ended up shaping the Constitution. This was especially around the articles that had to do with the elections and the superintendents in India. That was a big surprise too.

How did the efforts behind the creation of the electoral roll shape the constitution?

In the draft constitution in February 1948, the idea was that every state of the union will have its own election commission. But when they began to prepare the rolls and encountered attempts at disenfranchisement in places like Assam with their refugees, for example, they then realised the need for an autonomous central election commission so that people were not subjected to whims of local officials at the provincial level. The CAS that oversaw the process wrote a note to the constitution committee before these draft constitution articles were accepted in the assembly. And this is when (BR) Ambedkar presented before the assembly the provisions for the superintendent of election. Ambedkar went on to say that this was going to be a whole new article and explained that the reason it was drafted was because they wanted to ensure no one gets disenfranchised for speaking a different language or being of a different religion.

This was the origin of the autonomous central election commission of India, which emerged as an experiment during the preparation of the electoral roll.

Why do you say that the creation of universal franchise was one of the biggest acts of decolonisation?

We are accustomed to thinking that democracy is the inheritance of the British Raj. Colonial bureaucrats could not even imagine the idea of universal franchise for India. In fact, my book opens with the claim that this was India’s stark act of decolonisation. Indians imagined the universal franchise for themselves, and made it a political reality. The other belief was that people did not have a role in defining democracy, but my story shows otherwise. By realising that it is important to fight for a place on the electoral roll is how India created its own democracy, breaking away from the limited franchise allowed to just about one-third of the population because of Government of India Act 1935.

The idea of universal franchise in India was implemented before the Constitution was enacted, before people fully grasped the implications of being independent. Credit largely goes to the then bureaucracy and the dialogue they initiated between the people and the decision makers. How do you think this influenced the thinking of the average Indian and his perception of independence? How did these thoughts shape Indian democracy as we see today?

It was exactly through this process of ongoing dialogue, iterative interaction between people and bureaucrats at different levels that the idea of universal franchise, which is a very abstract principle, gained meaning and entered the imagination of people, and became concrete. People understood that a place on the electoral roll gives them the ability to shape the future government and give them a say. My book has several letters that people sent to the Secretariat about their own ideas on universal franchise. And when you read them, you realise that they did not think about getting enrolled simply for the right to vote, but thought of it as a title deed to democracy. And implementing it made universal franchise a convention and of course it has a far reaching effect today.

During election, the highest turnout in India is usually the poor people — who can make or break governments — and the origin of that is indeed in this very process.

I think the other point to make is that in the process of making this roll, the bureaucratisation of the notion of procedural equality for the purpose of voting is significant. This principle transformed the societal foundation of India. Imagine where a Brahmin and SC/ST had the same weight of vote. Bureaucratisation had a huge impact on India.

“I think it is important to continue fighting for the independence of the election commission.”

Between 1947 and 1950, this procedural equality was the backbone of creating an Indian government. India is now heading into a decisive election year and the society continues to be hierarchical and unequal. Despite the equalising efforts done, what do you think led the Indian democracy to become as divisive as it is today?

It was already a profoundly divided society back then too. Operationalising procedural equality was purely for the purpose of voting and was not about trying to homogenise society. Paradoxically, it was the success of the implementation of universal franchise which is the cause of the divisiveness. Because the success of democracy enabled the insertion of social identities into the design of political representation, it enabled caste politics. Everyone became a part of the compulsion of politics where earlier, it was the game of the privileged. The striking thing is also the way that divisiveness too is partly the reason for the success of democracy.

The role of India’s Election Commission is debated these days—whether it is actually an unbiased watchdog or can give in to political pressure. Are there any lessons from history to think about in this context?

The Election Commission of India, as it was set in the constitution, was the work of the CAS that laid the foundation about how it should function. The precious thing is its independence and I think this is what has to be maintained. The autonomy and independence of the election commission in India is extremely important for its democracy. And that’s what I think citizens should be concerned about maintaining. There is a constitutional basis for it. Yes, there are debates on its autonomy, but I think it is important to continue fighting for the independence of the election commission.