The elections in the world’s largest democracy are often described as a dance of democracy. Here are some statistics just to give you a scale of the vast logistical exercise that is the general election. In 2019, 619 adults voted in 1 million polling booths in 543 constituencies. Ornit and Rahul took us on a journey from the first general election to recent elections, exploring how the first electoral rolls were prepared, the logistics of the process and how Indians make voting decisions.
Ornit Shani. How India became democratic, 2018.
Pradeep K Chhibbe and Rahul Verma. Ideology and identity: The changing party systems of India. Oxford University Press, 2018.
Adam Auerbach etal., Rethinking the Study of Electoral Politics in the Developing World: Reflections on the Indian Case https://www.duo.uio.no/bitstream/handle/10852/85802/1/Auerbach_elal2021_postprint.pdf
Ornit Shani, Women and the Vote: Registration, Representation and Participation in the Run-Up to India’s First Elections, 1951–52 South Asia: Journal of South Asian Studies Volume 44(228), 2021
Kumar, Sanjay and Palshikar, Suhas and Shastr, Sandeep and Swaminathan, Siddharth and Krishnaswamy, Sudhir and Jayadev, Arjun (2018) Politics and society between elections. Technical Report. Azim Premji University, Bengaluru.
Association for Democratic Reform https://adrindia.org/
Leah: Welcome to the DAKSH podcast. I’m your host Leah. I work with DAKSH, a Bangalore based nonprofit working on judicial reforms and access to justice. On this episode, we have Rahul Verma and Ornit Shani. Ornit is an associate professor of History and Politics of modern India at the Department of Asian Studies, University of Haifa. She’s the author of ‘How India Became Democratic: Citizenship and the Making of Universal Franchise’, where she explores how the largest democracy in the world prepared for its first election. Rahul is a fellow at the Center for Policy Research (CPR). His research interests include voting behavior, party politics, political violence, and the media. He has also co-authored ‘Ideology And Identity: The Changing Party Systems Of India’ with Pradeep Chhibber, where they propose a new approach to understanding political ideology in multi-ethnic countries like India. As you may have guessed, today, we are discussing Indian elections, the history, the logistical challenges, and perhaps most importantly, we try to understand the Indian voter. I began by asking Ornit how India’s first elections were conducted relatively free and fair in the aftermath of partition, and Rahul, how do we manage to still maintain faith in the electoral process, while other principles of democracy are regularly questioned?
Ornit: Okay, so, you know, I think there are key elements that make or are necessary for the elections to be free and fair. First is ensuring that the electoral roll, which is the plinth upon which the institution of electoral democracy rests, is prepared and maintained as accurately as possible. Second, that the management and direction of the election is not compromised by politicization and there is no double standard in the conduct of electoral justice before, during or after the elections. And of course, the independence of the election commission is super important for that. And third, ensuring voters’ ability to cast the vote and to do that secretly. Now, the level and nature of participation, the turnouts in the elections and the public acceptance of the results in the peaceful transition of power thereafter, are a manifestation of the basic legitimation and confidence that the election will be free and fair. Now, in my view, the concerted and largely successful efforts during India’s first election and their preparation to uphold these three principles were critical for the building of a trusted election management body for the conduct of reasonably, as you say, fair elections and the building of trust. At that time, yeah, during the first election was also a result of the Election Commission being open and reporting to the public about problems that happened. So just as one example that gives, there was an incident of the disenfranchisement of 2.2 million women during the first elections because they didn’t register on the electoral roll in their own personal names. But instead, they were registered as ‘wife of’ which was not allowed by the law. Now women’s organizations lobbied fiercely for redressal of the situation, there was a lot of political pressure to change it. But the election commission was adhering to the law. And by the law at that point of time, they couldn’t make any changes. They published, Christ knows, they said they corrected for the next election, and you know, Nehru and Ambedkar’s statement at that time that they would not interfere, even in the face of a lot of pressure. On the one hand, it can be seen is like, as I said, like there was potentially a way to change it and why they didn’t interfere, but by not interfering, they actually made sure that for future they made sure the integrity of the prevention of politicization in the election in later years. In the last few years, I think, and the Election Commission, as we know have been able to build a quite remarkable reputation for itself over the years. In the last few years, that standing has been severely undermined, for example, if we see contestations over the striking of names from the electoral roll or about the double standard in the context of the enforcement of the model code of conduct.
Rahul: Leah, thank you for having me and it’s a pleasure and honor to be participating with Professor Ornit Shani in this conversation. In fact, the question that you asked has two parts to it. One is how do we manage to conduct elections reasonably well compared to that we don’t do well in other sectors? And the second one is, how does democracy survive in India? And so both questions let’s think about it. Modern democracies can’t be thought without elections and political parties. I’ll try to be brief on these two questions. First one is and a lot of scholars have thought about it, why democracy survives in India, given that India is perhaps the only large country which has been a democracy for 75 years, with that brief interlude for two years of emergency outside North America and Western Europe. Others, which have been that exception, are very, very small. They are not even the size of Mumbai or Delhi in terms of population and area size. There are a couple of reasons why this might have happened. We don’t have a good answer. The first one is its case of learning. And Professor Shani sort of hinted at that. So we had two elections, at least two big elections, pre-independence, 1937 and 1946. And both the times the government performed, so there was a case of learning and over a period of time, the successful elections in the first decade of independence, now we have managed to create a sort of learning where these elections. So democracy becomes the only game in town. Given the diversity of this country, perhaps there is no other way to run the system. The second one is how do we manage to conduct elections in such a large and diverse country reasonably well, when we fail to do many other tasks? And one answer to this question would be that somehow a bureaucracy and even elections involve a large set of bureaucracy manages to do episodic things well, whereas they don’t do that well on regular everyday affairs. So think of creating a whole city during Kumbh Mela, right. And that Kumbh Mela city runs very, very well, or running one of the massive vaccination drives, that also they managed to do well. So bureaucracy somehow is geared towards doing episodic things like election very, very well. But everyday affair where they involve interaction with the citizen and trying to muddle through the identities and power struggles and those kinds of things, things become much more complicated. But it’s not that we always like, say, from Western standards, or from other developing economies, between 1950 and 1990s, there have been problems in our conduct of elections, right? There were issues of booth capturing, turnout used to be low. There used to be electoral violence during elections, right? But over a period of time now, if you think about in 2010s, and 2020s, violence is very, very minimal. Turnout, without even having compulsory voting, we are having 70%, voter 65-70% voter turnout in parliamentary elections, and more than 80% in Assembly election. In my opinion, the turnout is much, much higher, once our process of electoral rolls will start, like cleaning of electoral rolls gets completed. People are turning out but because of the denominator effect, we see lower turnout. So those are perhaps two reasons why, you know, both democracy survives in India, as well as we managed to conduct elections, which is going to be well.
Leah: That’s a good segway into my next question, which is exploring this concept that democracy is surviving in India. So I mean, we conduct reasonably fair elections, people believe in the election process, they come out in large numbers to vote, there is mostly a peaceful transition of power. But when it comes to other democratic principles, like equality, freedom, how deep do you think Indians believe in those principles?
Rahul: Okay, let me try answering this question. Survey data have consistently pointed out that there is a very, very high level of trust Indians repose in the Election Commission. Perhaps, after the army, this is the second highest trusted institution, and the gap is very, very close. So you can’t separate the two. Do Indians believe in other democratic principles? Yes, there is evidence that they do care about equality, freedom and other things. But they also show certain contradictory tendencies. And this is also a problem of scholarship, where we think that all concepts should go hand in hand. Right? So if you believe in democracy, you should also believe in equality, you should also believe in freedom, you should also believe in human rights. And that’s why someone wrote like, there are at least more than hundreds of democracies with adjectives, because it’s not simply democracy, but we have many more types of democracy. So in that sense, survey data has consistently also shown that not just Indians, people in other parts of the world also show preferences for what you may call undemocratic tendencies, which is having a preference for strong leadership, which does not bother about elections and Parliaments and procedures. There is a preference for experts, sometimes over politicians and there is also preference for majoritarian tendencies where minority rights do not get similar weight as you would expect in mature democracies. Now, why this might be happening. So we don’t have lots of such public opinion polling data going back, like before 1980. So we don’t know how things have changed. But we also know that this is an effect of increasing polarization in our politics. So in a very recent survey, what I noted that the difference between some people show undemocratic attitudes, that difference is not basically driven by which party you support for. So BJP, Congress, Left voters, all of them on an average, show undemocratic attitudes. But the differences are actually driven by those who are highly partisan, compared to weak partisans. So highly partisan, basically show that in the game of democracy, my person should win, my person should be making the rules and frames and other things. And perhaps on that count, we do see that in Indian politics, that there are elements of undemocratic attitudes present in society. But that’s not just in India. Many mature democracies in North America and Western Europe also are showing those tendencies in recent polling data.
Leah: Yeah, I suppose that goes back to like basic, tribalistic instincts that we have, you know, and we may put a cloak of democracy around that, but those will surface once in a while. Ornit?
Ornit: I agree, of course, with Rahul, that we see those anti democratic tendencies across the globe. But let me take us to the beginning to the early days of the republic in order to think about whether Indians believed in equality and freedom. So, you know, these ideals that were provided for in the Constitution were never entirely fulfilled. But if we’re going back to Independence India’s early days, so you know, in a new book On The Making Of The Constitution that Rohit Dey and I are co authoring at the moment, we show that Indians from across the country, multifarious groups, especially from the margins of society, were in pursuit of these ideas and made a lot of efforts to make their voices heard, that Indians believed in the promise of these ideas is evidence. For example, by the way, people struggled to have a place on the electoral roll. Or, for example, by the way, in which many groups from the margins of society like is one example. The sweepers of Bombay, in 1951, were organizing themselves to get a ticket for the first elections and come out to the limelight of election, as you know, the future sovereign of the country. But as we also show in our forthcoming book, there were also countervailing forces. So you know, Robert talks about the anti democratic tendencies as well, but these countervailing voices, which at the time were at the margins of politics, but they were there, some of these forces gained political dominance today, and it is clear that freedom and the notion of equality has been undermined, and that they are under threat in India today. So we really show that how people not only believed but really were in pursuit of these ideals and the countervailing forces at the time were there, but at the margin of politics.
Leah: Ornit, your description of the preparation of the roles for India’s first election is quite eye opening. You know, despite our collective fascination with elections, we know very little about the history of our own elections. So can you describe the process of how the Constituent Assembly Secretariat managed this process of creating electoral rolls for the first general elections?
Ornit: So thanks, Leah, this was not obvious at all, that they’ll be able to do that. So you know, this is the story quickly. The Constituent Assembly had, though, the principle of universal franchise at the beginning of the constitutional debates in April 1947, the practical implications of preparing the rolls first arose in a letter that KT Shah, member of the constituent assembly, sent Rajendra Prasad in late August 1947, and he tells first that in the letter, you know, we decided on universal franchise, this is going to be a very big task. At the same time, we also need a census. We really, for policy, we need a lot of data. How about combining the two operations and have the census and the preparation of roles together, and Rajendra Prasad simply passes the letter to the Secretariat of the Constituent Assembly to review and consider it. So the proposal initially by the Secretary looked at it with skepticism. They were thinking about the question of involvement of politics, politicization around the census, but they sent it for an expert opinion. They sent it to a professor of Mathematics and Statistics, KP Madhava, from Mysore University, and he wrote a report supporting their view that the two things should not be combined. He said that these are two different operations and the importance of maintaining an accurate and up to date electoral roll makes it worthwhile to concentrate attention on it alone in order to combine the two processes. The Secretariat passes their recommendation to Rajendra Prasad, and he, as the President of the Assembly, approves that they should embark on this colossal task and I’m saying ‘colossal task’ because it was preparing the roles for what at the time was anticipated and became to be more than 173 million people, 85% of whom were illiterate. Now, Rahul was mentioning earlier colonial previous elections. But the point is that the conducting elections under colonial times was done on a totally different principle and concept of registration of voters. So the big question that was how to devise instructions for preparing electoral roll for the whole population, right under the last election, it was 30 million voters with a very restricted franchise. So in a way, preparing for the electoral rolls under universal franchise required a rewriting of the bureaucratic colonial imagination. And what the Secretariat does is by November 1947, they send a letter to all the governments of the states and the princely states. and they ask for their views on how to undertake these tests, what difficulties they anticipated, and how they propose to meet these challenges. And the idea was that on that basis on the basis of feedback that they’ll get, they will devise the instructions. And over the next months, governments’ performance, governments have failed states across India are engaging with these questions. And ultimately, the scheme for how to prepare the rewards didn’t come from the British. The British way of doing it, as much as it came from, the scheme that was at the time devised by the princely state of Travancore, that was preparing the time for its own elections, as it were to take place on the basis of other franchise it was to take place in February 1948, for a much smaller population, of course. And the last thing to say here is that at the basis of the instructions, which were so critical for preparing the roads across India, lay a method of engaging the public in the process by conducting it on a house to house basis, going house to house, village by village, door to door. And that’s how the whole thing started.
Leah: Yeah, and I think there are a lot of lessons to be learned from that process, even for policymaking in 2022. So, Ornit, we take universal adult suffrage for granted in 2022. But in 1947, you know, for a newly independent country, which was deeply stratified along the lines of religion, caste and gender, it was actually remarkable that India committed to universal adult franchise, which is the right of every adult to vote. To put this in context, you know, Australia got universal adult franchise only in 1967, Canada in 1960, and the US in 1965. So can you just describe how this consensus came about?
Ornit: So you know, a) we have to remember that the National Movement had been committed to Universal Adult Suffrage since the Nehru report in 1928 and then it was reiterated in the Karachi resolution in 1931. And of course, the anti colonial mass nationalism after the First World War further strengthened this vision and the public expectation. So when the Constituent Assembly adopted universal franchise on the basis of the interim report of the Fundamental Rights Committee, there was no disagreement and there was no debate, it was just basically decided. But of course, as I said, it was not inevitable, taking into account the many challenges of implementing universal franchise in the midst of the turmoil for the transition to independence and in the face of the conditions that you just mentioned of the deep divisions in the country. Now, it is interesting that there was a moment in May 1948, when the preparation of the electoral rolls were already in motion when Rajendra Prasad, the President of the Assembly got cold feet about it, and he came up with the idea, he started to have reservations about Universal Franchise and he started to think whether it should be actually granted gradually or even he suggested concretely to utilize Adult Franchise only at the village panchayat levels and making village panchayat electoral colleges electing representative for the provinces and central legislators. But Nehru, as the secretary of the Assembly, H.V.R. Iyengar recollected, became very angry. And what Iyengar described is how Nehru thumped the table and said something like, “No, I’m insisting that the people of the country would start with universal franchise. This is a basic law, according to me”, and he, as Iyengar said, he would brook no controversy over that. So there was also a very strong political wheel despite all the challenges, but in fact, Leah, there was no full consensus on the principle, and there were exclusions from it. So some people in territories in India were excluded from the universal franchise and like, as you mentioned, in Canada, when only 1960 barriers to voting for Indians living on reserves were removed or Australia when until 1965, Aboriginals were prohibited from voting in federal and state elections, they received the vote in India only later. Some people in the territory, so the entire Jammu and Kashmir state was excluded from franchise for the first three general elections. Jammu and Kashmir was allotted the six seats in the Lok Sabha, but until 1967, they were nominated by the President and the state itself had its first legislative assembly elections only in 1962. The territories that were specified under the sixth schedule of the Constitution, the Part B tribal areas were also excluded from the franchise. They were allotted one seat to the Lok Sabha, to be filled by a person nominated by the President and not through elections. And these northeast frontier tracks as they came to be called from 1954 continued to be represented in the Lok Sabha by one member, again, appointed by the President and head elections only for the first time. I mean, until 1967, when it became the Union Territory of Arunachal Pradesh, the Andaman and Nicobar Islands also, were allotted a seat by nomination not by election, and Manipur, which had a functioning Legislative Assembly that was elected on the basis of universal franchise already 1948, before the enactment of the Constitution was deprived altogether at independence from the Legislative Assembly, which it got only in 1963. So there were exclusions that we have to remember.
Leah: Yeah, that’s important to keep in mind. So moving on from the first election to subsequent elections. So Rahul, this is for you. So elections are reasonably fair when it comes to voting. But how fair are they, do you think when it comes to who can contest?
Rahul: India’s democratic experiment, in some ways, was a great leap of faith. And there were doomsday predictions about that, this whole experiment of making India democracy is going to fail, and India is going to divide itself into multiple separate nations. There were doomsday predictions in the 1960s of the dangerous decade, and fissiparous tendencies which were very, very visible. But somehow, what happened between 1947 I’d say, emergency and then the election after emergency, those 30 years, in some ways are critical, where lots of institutions which basically support the democratic procedures and conduct of elections were tried, tested, and we sort of like refined ourselves going forward. Right? So think about it between 1947 and 1977, we had three delimitation exercises, constituency boundaries were changed. We started in 1952, where there were lots of constituencies which had three member constituencies, triple member constituencies. We also had double member constituencies, which all got abolished by 1962. So there were lots of not just the story of electoral rolls, which Ornit had written very beautifully, but think about this whole idea of thinking that a large mass of Indian population is non literate, they won’t be able to read the name of candidates and thought about electoral symbols being on the paper ballot and people are going to vote for it. That 30 years of exercise, many bureaucrats, many learned people of that time were involved in making sort of like the experiment of democracy success and each point in these 30 years, there were many occasions where we could have basically failed and gone a very, very different route. And so it’s a very, very complex story of how democracy in India unfolded. And that’s why any sort of prediction, be it on voting, or beat on who can contest is a very, very complex story. It can’t be linear. Have we done well? Or have we done worse? We have done both and at the same time. So think about this. There has been deeper penetration of democracy, no doubt about right? The number of people who contest every election, and I’m not even talking about local elections at the moment, just that the assembly and Lok Sabha level, each constituency on average, now sees around nine to ten people. There was a time in 1996, when actually the average went above thirty-one because the money for fixed deposit which you deposit before filing your nomination paper was just 500 rupees at that time. So it got revised and suddenly, again, the number of contestants came down. So we have been experimenting with many things. Again, this revision took place in 2009. So there are things that keep happening if you just include local elections, in every election cycle, India basically elects more than 3 million people. We have more than one lakh panchayats. There are like so many Panchayat wards. So we basically and 3 million may not be even the size of countries on this planet, right? That’s the amount of people who get elected every cycle. And for each seat, even if you think about like three people contesting which I’m basically being very conservative, then at least nine to 10 million people are contesting in every election cycle. That’s a huge number, right? And in terms of who can participate. Now, there is also the story where, if you look at the data for the last five Lok Sabha elections, we do have a problem. So, there is a democratization story which is happening in terms of caste, the share of upper caste in legislative assemblies and in parliament have come down, the share of OBCs have gone up and through reservation we have ensured the share of SCS and STS in Parliament as an assembly, we have one of the most radical affirmative action programs in panchayats, where there are 50% seats which are reserved for women in all states now. There is reservation for SCs and STs. But we also have the story of people with criminal records contesting elections and winning, right, we also have a story where there is a direct correlation between the wealth status of the candidate so the data collected by Association For Democratic Reforms, and these are, of course, under reported numbers, right? Even then we know that between two competitive candidates, the person who has more money or more assets is more likely to be and so rich people are more likely to get elected in this country, candidates with criminal records are more likely to get people from upper social strata are more likely to get elected, women still do not find place in ticket nominations and their ability to win. So those are also the failures of our democracy we have under representation of religious minorities in these countries. But again, there is a story of democratization we should not forget.
Leah: In 2018, there was this survey done by Azim Premji University and Lok Niti, called Politics And Society Between Elections. And they found that only 35% of the people surveyed said that the caste of their political leader doesn’t matter. And only 37% said that religion doesn’t matter. Does your research also corroborate this finding about voting on the basis of identity?
Rahul: It’s interesting. We have a tendency in India, where whenever social identity and politics get linked and mentioned, we see it as if something is really bad about social identities operating in politics. And I keep telling people tell me one country on this planet, where social identities don’t matter in politics, where you don’t find. Political parties have roots in society. Right? And so they mobilize social cleavages. Even in the United States of America, African Americans are more likely to vote for Democrats and white suburban Americans are more likely to vote Republican. So social identities are building blocks of politics. Right? And so in India, there is a caste and party relationship. Why should that be surprising or bad? That’s how politics operate everywhere. And if these social identities matter in everyday life, why would it not matter or play out in politics? Right? And so first, it should not be surprising or anything bad. The problem is that we try to understand our politics and even election outcomes only through social identity as if social identities change between two elections, right? So social identities are only building blocks of politics, they don’t explain election outcomes. In most elections, the winner is going to gain across social identities, like caste or religion more, and in some less, and the party which loses the election is going to lose across social identities. And this is an empirical fact like there are no two things about it. The point here is that the relationship between social identities and politics is not an axiomatic relationship, that I’m born into some identity and that’s why I prefer some party. This relationship is also a policy relationship. A Bahujan Samaj Party is a party which espouses the cause of Dalits. It speaks for their rights, it speaks for what they need, or a Bhartiya Janta party, in its policies and programs and nomination pattern is likely to prefer the upper caste of the society, right? And so that’s how this caste party or religion party relationships get formed. And these are very, very stable. It doesn’t change every election. And it doesn’t change with the moving of one or two caste leaders from this party or that party. So during the elections, especially on TV media, people actually get excited, oh, this leader has moved to that party, that means the caste is going with them. No, that’s not how the caste party relationship is built. These are very, very solid relationships. And that’s why they survived the test of time. And framers of our Constitution we’re aware about like Ambedkar called like, you know, that we have a problem of society, which is hierarchical, and we need certain ways so that they can get included. And we have come up with one policy, which is having affirmative action programmes or reservation, in elections in state assemblies in Lok Sabha. But if you think about earlier, we also had this for Muslims in 1937 and 1946 elections. But the partition, like if you read through Constituent Assembly debates, the attitude of members on Muslims reservation completely changed on 16th, August 1947. Right? And so some of those tenants have remained there. And that’s why when the 73rd, 74th amendment took place, we had a massive program for women and SCs and STs. And we have started seeing now after 30 years, that more women are getting elected if the reservation is 50%. In UP, for example, around 60% of female sarpanches won, right? And there is also now we have started seeing that SCs and STs win this contest outside the reservation area. So the first change is that they have started contesting. And the second change is that they have also started winning, but the ratio is low. Why we see lower number of SCs and STs winning in state assemblies and Lok Sabha? Because parties play a crucial role. Parties are actually not nominating SCs and STs outside the reservation areas. So this relationship has been there. And it’s likely to be there. It’s not going to change. But the composition, the language through which identities will get mobilized, keeps on changing. The language of identity mobilization in the 90s was different than what we are seeing from 2014 onwards.
Leah: yeah the point that you made that uh you know identity mobilization shouldn’t always be seen as a bad thing and this is something that professor Sudipta Kaviraj said when I was in grad school and at that time you’re like yeah that is true. He’s like why is it just when SP and BSP start mobilizing on the basis of identity, people are disturbed. I mean this is how society works so we shouldn’t be too surprised at this and label it as a bad thing. So Rahul, your book ‘Ideology and Identity: The Changing Party System of India’ describes the role of ideology in electoral politics. Now this is obviously a large topic. We tend to think of ideology in Western frames you know in terms of Left-Right. Can you tell us how ideology, distinct from identity, works in the Indian context?
Rahul: So, what we were trying to basically say that, see in post-colonial countries like India, the concerns of framers of Modern India were very very different because of our historical experience. India never had Renaissance, Reformation or Industrial Revolution, so the kind of cleavages that got produced in Western Europe because of these big ships didn’t happen in India. We basically became an independent nation-state from a colony overnight, right? And in terms of social diversity, we are a very very diverse country. So our concerns were very very different so we should not be thinking about oh why don’t we have economic left and right. The reason we don’t have economic left and right, because there was agreement in the constituent assembly that the first job of this assembly, these were the words of nehru while moving the objective resolution which is that, the job of this assembly is to feed the hungry, clothe the naked right? So our problem is that was very different. The state is going to become the provider, the state is going to become the producer right and so given those differences the Left-Right economic divide in India didn’t come to the fore at that time. Our concern was much more, how do we bring this diverse society into the mainstream of body politics. What would be the basis of citizenship. We just had partition where the country was divided on the lines of religion. There was a big debate happening that in a graded society, how are you going to bring SCs and STs into the mainstream of body politics. So, the question was not about whether India should become a developed country and remove poverty. Those were not the differences. The differences were on the approaches that India should take in accommodating this diversity and moving on the path of development.
Leah: So Rahul, the common wisdom in India is that voters are actually only voting on roti-kapda-makan kind of issues. Do you think in recent times ideology in terms of nationalism or ethno-religious identity is trumping over these basic welfare issues?
Rahul: I’m not sure who’s saying that voters in India vote only on roti-kapda-makan because given what happened in 2019 and what happened in even recent elections, if just the economic concerns were important, you should not have seen the kind of results you saw which means that more questions which are related to what you can call as political culture or ideological belief systems are playing a role in our politics and they have always been important but there are some things which we don’t know about our politics. Why does India give rise to dominant party systems? This is the second time we are getting a dominant party system. While having a dominant party system, why is our Party politics so fragmented, where you have hundreds of parties competing for the space. I think voting is a really really hard exercise. Once you have to start thinking about rationally who you should vote. Think about like just minimum four or five criterias which I think people must be thinking about leadership, how the government performed, what is the message of this election ideological narrative, the social arithmetic, social identities play a role, organization and mobilization play a role. Just on these five things if a voter has to think just between two parties, there are so many outcomes possible. And in most places, there are like at least four or five parties that are competing. Right? And so it’s really really hard for voters because the act of vote is one and there are hundreds of variables one has to think about so Roti-Kapda-makaan is an issue and it’s just one of the issues on which voters are going to vote and so this is why a lot of time after election outcomes people beat their chest because their favorite issue didn’t determine the election. Politics is not just about issues. Which issue will basically become salient during election is also job of politicians. Voters don’t always decide which issue is going to be important in the election. It’s also job of political parties and politicians and elites, through their messaging they try to bring down the salience of certain issues and bring up the salience of certain issues. So for me, the way I think about politics is, voters are incidental to the story of electoral outcomes. There are lot many players who are shaping what would happen in elections.
Leah: Very well said. So Rahul spoke about debates about the basis of citizenship. So Ornit I just want to go back to you on that issue. The times in which the first electoral rolls were prepared were obviously tumultuous, it was the aftermath of partition, there were vast migrations, so can you just describe for our listeners how the issue of registering refugees as voters was handled?
Ornit: Yes and it connects to you know Rahul spoke about the question of citizenship and what it should be, how it should be characterized early on in the days and the question of the registration of partition refugees was tied to that question and was in fact the first significant challenge that arose in the preparation of the roles which started in April 1948. So, according to the instructions for preparing the rolls a person who could be on the roll was every Indian citizen of 21 years of age were the place of residence in the Electoral unit where he or she were to be registered for no less than 180 days. These people could be enrolled. But as far as the refugees were concerned and there were about 18 million of them, both their citizenship status and the resident status, the two basic criteria for being registered as voters, were unclear and contested. A large number of the refugees just migrated to India and of course they didn’t meet the 180 days qualification, 180 days residence qualification, and as for citizenship at the time while the consequences of the partition were still unfolding and the extent of the territory of India was not even clear, who is an Indian, the question who is an Indian was not clear. The Constituent Assembly decided on the final provisions for citizenship only in August 1949 and in the meantime the Secretariat of the Constituent Assembly worked on the basis of the draft Constitutional provisions for citizenship. And these provisions laid, they were very hybrid right? They laid down birth descent domiciles as criteria for citizenship at the commencement of the Constitution and the draft even provided an easy mode for the displaced people for the refugees to be registered as citizens by simply acquiring domicile, by simply making a statement to a district magistrate, that they desire to have a domicile and that they were in the place of a residence where they are at least one month before. But, these declarations could be done only after the Constitution comes into force. So, in effect, the refugees did not at the time meet. Even the draft Constitution provisions, in order to be on the electoral rolls. Now, immediately as they started to prepare the rolls, a wide range of refugees’ organizations, citizens associations sent dozens of letters and inquiries to the Constituent Assembly Secretariat, anxious about their citizenship and their place on the electoral roll and recognizing the risks that such a large number of people would be left out of the electoral rolls and facing the significant pressure from the public about it, the Secretariat found a very inclusive solutions. They decided that the refugees at that time in February 1948, it was the decision was from July 1948 would be registered on the roll simply by a mere declaration by them on their intention to reside permanently in the place where they would be enrolled and they were not asked to provide any supplementary documents. Right? It was clear that these are the hardship and the approach, the attitude was as inclusive as possible.
Leah: Very interesting, especially these times when again the issue of illegal immigration and refugees has come to the forefront. So one final question for you Ornit, which is a bit of a philosophical question so you know what I got from your book ‘How India Became Democratic’ is that there was a sense of vigilance among the people about getting themselves registered, getting themselves on the rolls. In 2022, you know 75 years after Independence, do you think we’ve become far more complacent about our democratic rights?
Ornit: So you know Leah, think in January 2020, we saw hundreds of thousands of people of diverse classes, caste, religions, gathering spontaneously in public spaces across India and collectively read aloud the Preamble of the Constitution, when they were protesting against and defying the newly enacted Citizenship Amendment Act which introduced new provisions based on religion that discriminated ultimately against Muslims and against the plan, National Register of Citizens which at the time in Assam already excluded 1.9 million people or made them stateless and in these protests, these masses in effect reclaimed their place as we the people and the start of the covid-19 pandemic and lockdowns that followed put halts to these protests and these mass protests in early 2020 suggested people were not complacent about their basic place in India’s democracy is the people. And if we go back to the early days of the Republic, it is very clear that people’s vigilance had a significant critical role. It was key to the success of democracy than in over seven decades. It is impossible to ignore the fact that under current circumstances it takes a lot of courage to be a vigilant citizen, so we cannot ignore that fact that, in the early days of the Republic, people found sometimes very creative ways to be vigilant to pursue themselves and certain key institutions like the at the time the Constituent Assembly Secretariat and a little bit later the Election Commission Of India were very open to engage with them and to take them into account. That’s exactly what happened with the refugees what I was just talking about a minute ago. If anything I think there’s a sense that some of the ones respected and well-reputed institutions like the Election Commission or even today the Supreme Court have become less willing to engage and that they may in the process, also have lost some of their integrity and independence.
Leah: Thank you Ornit and Rahul for that insightful conversation and you’ve been listening to the DAKSH podcast. If you enjoyed the episode, do consider supporting us with a donation. The link is in the show notes below. Creating this podcast takes effort and your support will help us sustain a space for these quality conversations. To find out more about us and our work visit our website dakshindia.org that’s d-a-k-s-h-india.org. Don’t forget to tap follow or subscribe to us wherever you listen to your podcast so that you don’t miss an episode. We would love to hear from you so do share your feedback either by dropping us a review or rating the podcast where podcast apps allow you to. Talk about it on social media. We are using the hashtag DAKSH podcast. It really helps to get the word out there. Most of all, if you found some useful information that might help a friend or family member, share the episode with them. A special thanks to our production team at ‘Made in India’, our Production Head, Niketana K, edited, mixed and mastered by Lakshman Parisharam and Project Supervision by Sean Phantom.