This is the second article in our series 'Writings on the Indian Constitution', aimed at encouraging deeper engagement with the primary resources on our website through the identification and analysis of secondary materials. Read more about our series here.

When India first achieved independence in 1947, it was faced with completing two mammoth tasks to facilitate the transition to democracy: the first was the drafting of the Indian Constitution, while the second involved conducting its first elections on the basis of universal adult franchise. Ornit Shani’s book How India Became Democratic delves into how the preparation of the electoral roll for the first Lok Sabha elections – the first-ever based on adult franchise – had far-reaching administrative, constitutional, social, and political impacts.

This is likely the only book based primarily on the records of the Election Commission of India, whose predecessor – the Constituent Assembly Secretariat – was responsible for overseeing the preparation of the roll.  Shani looks at letters between members of the Secretariat and the Constituent Assembly, heads of states and provinces, bureaucrats, citizens organizations, and individuals.  

The book is divided into six chapters, each of which addresses the impact of the roll-preparation process on a different aspect of India’s legal, political and administrative imagination.

The first and second chapter explore how the preparation of the electoral roll marked a major change from British colonial rule by institutionalizing equality. Bureaucrats in different states/provinces and members of the Secretariat worked with each other to enfranchise people, regardless of their caste, class, religion or sex.  Shani illustrates this point by dedicating the second chapter to the unique difficulties posed by the registration of Partition refugees – and how the Secretariat and bureaucrats adopted a flexible approach to registration to ensure that these refugees were not disenfranchised.

In the third chapter, Shani explores how the Secretariat used the press to foster a sense of personal attachment and ownership of the roll-preparation process. The publication of minute details of the process, combined with the Secretariat’s quick responses to letters from the public, made people view the process and the institutions involved in it as transparent and accountable, contributing to the creation of a  democratic citizenry.

The fourth chapter explores how the process disciplined the Indian federal structure. When the princely states and provinces recognized the authority of a national body like the Secretariat and engaged in discussions on the apportionment of costs for the process, it created a blueprint for a cooperative future centre-state relationship.

The fifth chapter serves as an effective dismissal of the criticism that the constitution-making process was elite and did not involve the ‘people’. Shani demonstrates that the preparation of the roll shaped the Constitution of India, 1950 from the bottom-up. She points to the creation of an autonomous, independent body to oversee elections – the Election Commission of India – which was the result of advice given by the Secretariat, based on the concerns voiced by individuals and citizen organizations.

In the sixth chapter, Shani looks into how the deliberate disenfranchisement of certain communities and territories – such as tribes from the Frontier Regions and the state of Jammu & Kashmir –  informed the major issues that plague the Indian democracy today.

The chapters are clearly linked together to emphasize three points: firstly, the procedural elements involved in this mammoth administrative task of creating the first electoral roll; secondly, how India transitioned from an exclusionary system of governance under the British to a sustainable, indigenous democratic citizenship; and third, the impact of the process on the drafting of the Indian Constitution.

Previous scholarship on India’s transition to democracy have focused on the constitution-making process; by examining the process of preparing the roll in such minute detail, Shani also helps us appreciate the practical difficulties of creating and implementing democratic processes in a diverse, vast country.