Keeping democracy alive

Thanks to the voters’ name imprinted in the electoral roll, we are able to ensure the survival of Indian democracy

After India achieved independence in 1947, there were grave doubts about its survival as a democracy. When the fathers of the Indian constitution went about the task of creating a democratic state, they consciously decided to adopt the system of universal franchise under which every eligible adult could exercise her or his right to vote.

This meant a departure from the colonial practice of limited franchise by creating separate electorates on the basis of religion, community and profession. It also signified the immense faith the constitution makers had in the Indian people and their faith has not been belied. India has not just survived as a free nation but is considered a robust democracy.

Nearly 70 years after India became a republic, with parliamentary elections once again round the corner, it would be instructive to get some glimpses of the history of the electoral roll which forms the basis for universal adult franchise.

The electoral roll constitutes the register of citizens who are entitled to vote in an election. Not many know how and under what circumstances the first electoral roll was prepared.

It is interesting to note that the preparation for the first general election held between October 1951 and February 1952 started as early as September 1947 with the setting up of the Constituent Assembly Secretariat (CAS), a small bureaucratic body under the guidance of eminent Constitutional Advisor B N Rau. The CAS emerged as the main actor in creating the electoral roll. In a historic letter of communication dated March 15, 1948, it issued instructions to all the provinces and states for the compilation of the roll.

Eligibility conditions were laid down for a person to be included in the roll. Every citizen of and above 21 years of age, who was not disqualified because of unsoundness of mind or non-residence was entitled to registration as a voter.

The residential requirement specified that the voter should have had a place of residence in the electoral unit for a period of not less than 180 days in the year ending March 31, 1948. The registration should be carried out house-to-house on the basis of the house numbers given in the 1941 census.

New buildings had to be given supplementary numbers. It was made clear that there would be only “one composite roll for all communities” and there would be “no special constituencies under the new constitution”, except those reserved for scheduled castes and tribes.

The electoral roll is thus a reflection of the principle of equality and the secular character of the nation. One of the biggest challenges in the preparation of the preliminary electoral roll was answering the question, “Who is an Indian?”, especially in the context of the massive inflow of refugees caused by partition.

It is important to note that the electoral roll was being prepared even before the constitution was made and the idea of citizenship was given a statutory basis. Several ticklish issues cropped up and there were lengthy correspondences between the CAS and the states, particularly the border states like Assam, West Bengal and East Punjab.

It must be said to the credit of the Secretariat of the Constituent Assembly that it acted very responsibly and with a great deal of transparency. It responded to the questions raised not only by the state and provincial governments but by various citizen groups which represented the people to secure citizenship and franchise.

It adopted a flexible approach, without being arbitrary, in resolving problems. For instance, it was receptive to the request for extending the deadline for submitting refugee declarations. It issued a comprehensive press note “in order to remove any apprehensions in the minds of the public” and to “allay the fears of the refugees”. Here are some lessons for the current administration which is grappling with similar questions with regard to the new Citizenship Bill.

According to Ornit Shani who has narrated the epic story of How India Became Democratic (the title of her fascinating book) in great detail, the way in which the first electoral roll was prepared on the basis of universal adult franchise “became part of popular narratives that played an essential role in connecting people to a popular democratic political imagination”.

Indeed, people began to own the principle of adult franchise and “a place on the roll became their title deed of democracy”. Today, citizens conscious of their right to vote proudly demand to see their names in the electoral roll of their polling stations.

It is also important to highlight the constructive role played by the bureaucracy which was entrusted with the task of planning and managing the entire project of preparing the electoral roll across the length and breadth of the country.

Staggering job

The bureaucrats used their own imagination, worked assiduously and executed it successfully. Enrolling 173 million people, at a time when a vast majority of the people were poor and illiterate, and putting adult suffrage into practice was indeed a “staggering bureaucratic undertaking”(Shani).

It would be relevant to add that to this day, the bureaucracy has continued to play a significant role in the conduct of elections. The Election Commission of India has, by and large, retained its reputation as a credible institution and has won laurels across the world for the smooth conduct of elections, marked by efficiency and impartiality.

India has made further progress in achieving greater transparency and fairness in the election process, thanks to the use of modern technology. In 1993,the Election Commission decided to prepare the Electronic Photo Identity Card (EPIC) and in 1996, it came out with the electronic electoral roll.

The Electronic Voting Machine (EVM) has brought about a revolutionary change in the method of voting, apart from speeding up the election process. Perhaps, India is the only country in the world that uses EVMs in all the constituencies and on such a large scale.

Behind all this lies the first electoral roll which served as the foundation on which universal adult franchise has been built. It has also helped in fostering the spirit of nationhood and forging a common citizenship. Thanks to her and his name imprinted in the electoral roll, the ordinary Indian is able to ensure the survival of Indian democracy.

(The writer is retired chief secretary, Government of Karnataka)

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