Title: How India Became Democratic

AUTHOR: Ornit Shani

Pages: 284

PRICE: Rs.599

Publisher: Penguin

CURRENTLY when India is in the throes of constant elections, somewhere or the other, we don't perhaps feel the need to know or have time (and perhaps interest ) to realise how the power to vote was transferred to the free Indian in the first general elections held in 1950. We are presently engaged in whether the electronic voting machines (EVM) are tamper-proof or the ballot papers were the sound system of voting.

Do we ask ourselves, how did India start its election process after it independence from the British Raj ? What were the challenges, especially when some of the princely States ( Bhopal, Junagadh or Hyderabad) had no intentions of merging with the Union of India that had just born? Did the Constituent Assembly have any role in preparing the electoral rolls of this vast new nation or was the Election Commission of India straightaway given the responsibility? How did that happen? The complex and huge exercise, both legal, social and administrative, of making universal franchise a reality in a nascent nation-state as a functioning democratic unit, is actually very interesting.

India has come to be known as a country where elections keep happening round the year. With the three-tier Panchayati Raj also in vogue for more than a decade now, some elections somewhere keep taking place —from general elections to various Sstate Assembly elections, local bodies polls, and the by-elections and so on. In this backdrop the new book on election history of early years of independence is being introduced to the readers.

The prelude to the adult franchise is the plinth on which the electoral democracy rests. When India was still under the British Raj, elections and governance was done under the colonial legal framework, the Government of India Act, 1935. The adoption of universal adult suffrage, which was agreed on at the beginning of the constitutional debates in April 1947, was a significant departure from colonial practice. Electoral institutions did exist before independence but they were largely a means of coopting ruling elites and strengthening the colonial state. Curiously, the legal structure for elections under colonial rule stipulated the right of an individual to be an elector, and the provisions for inclusion on the electoral rolls were made on that basis, writes the author.

What is of significance to know now is the representation in pre-independence era was based on the 'weightage' and separate electorates, wherein seats were allotted along religious, community and professional lines, and on a very limited franchise. Rather than defining voters exclusively as individuals, the law defined them as members of communities and groups. Thus, not only did the experience and legacy of elections under colonialism offer restricted representation without democracy, the electoral practices, which informed patterns of political mobilisation, resulted in the deepening of sectarian nationalism and impeded unity. Readers would be surprised to know that the British officials unfailingly argued that universal franchise was a bad fit for people of India.

In fact, the national movement for adult suffrage can be traced to 1928 when Nehru ( Pt Moti Lal Nehru) Report came out for debate and public discourse. Nehru was appointed by All Parties Conference to suggest principles of the Constitution of India. The committee's conclusion was that the only solution was adult suffrage.

There are many interesting stories and developments related to how voting rights were conferred upon ordinary Indians, narrated in this book after massive research by the author with the help of the documents of ECI's archives which were actually gathering 'solid dust'.

The first elections,spread over almost five months, took place between 25 October 1951 and 21 February 1952. The preparatory work for electoral rolls had begun in September 1947. The Constituent Assembly Secretariat ( CAS) had played a major role in framing rules and evolving the process of how the elections would be conducted.

There are many books related to electioneering, Indian democracy, massive election process, party politics and so on but this small book, with lots and lots of cross references is unique. The author writes at one place that Indians became voters before they were citizens because the first draft electoral rolls on the basis of universal franchise was ready before the enactment of constitution.

First President Rajendra Prasad, speaking at the Constituent Assembly in October 1949, had said: I was myself calculating one day the thickness of the volume of the electoral rolls for all the Provinces and I found that it will come to nearly three-fourths of a furlong ( 220 yards).

The exercise of drawing up the electoral rolls was unparalleled in the world, even then, considering the very size of the population that the newly independent nation of Asian subcontinent had inherited from the colonial rule. For example Bihar reported 19,682,852 electors enrolled while WB had 11,657,767 and Bombay had 15,000,000.

No other country had so many people waiting to be enrolled as the voters for the historic first election to the Lok Sabha. In all, 17 crore people voted to elect its own first government of free India. Most of the free countries did not even have this much of total population. For instance, the mighty United States had just about 15 crore population in 1950.

From the way election process has progressed in all these 70 years, many things have changed. The initial years saw officers grappling with the problem of language in which the electoral rolls were to be prepared. What has not changed,however, is the way names are registered. In those days too, election commission officials would go from house to house to enter names of eligible electors in the official register. The system continues till date, though other processes have gone electronics.

Author, Ornit Shani, a senior lecturer at department of Asian Studies in University of Haifa, stayed in India for many years researching how the election process unfolded in the world's biggest democracy and has come out with this book with what is a beautiful treatise and historic document on how the Indians for their first voting rights.