Welcome to the Dutch podcast. I’m your host Korea, I work with Dutch a Bangalore based nonprofit working on judicial reforms and access to justice. On this episode, we have Rahul Verma and Ordinis Chani, Ani 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 cprw. 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 Jabbar 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 or Meath 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?
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 the ensuring that the electoral roll, which is the plinth upon which the institution of electoral democracy rest is prepared and maintained as accurately as possibly 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 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 give, 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, Chris knows, they said they corrected for the next election, and you know, narrow and Ambedkar statement at the 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 electric 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 in the enforcement of the model code of conduct.
Leah, thank you for having me and it’s a pleasure and honor to participate Meeting with Professor Fournette Shani, on 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 second one is, how does democracy survives in India? And so both questions let’s think about it. A modern democracies can’t be thought without elections and political parties. I’ll try to be brief on these two questions. First one is I a lot of scholars have thought about 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 type 37 and 46. And both the times 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 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, we fail to do many other tasks. And one answer to this question would be that somehow a bureaucracy and even election involves 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 cupola, right. And that Comella 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 both capturing turnout used to be low. That used to be electoral violence during elections, right. But over a period of time now, if you think about in 2000 times, and 2000 20s, violence is very, very minimal turnout, without even having compulsory voting, we are having 70%, voter 65 to 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,
that’s a good segue into my next question, which is exploring this concept of 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 belief in those principles is?
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 election commission, perhaps after 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 democracy with adjectives, because it’s not simply democracy, but we have many more types of democracy. So in that sense, survey data has consistent Clear 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 Parliament’s 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 a mature democracy. 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 and democratic 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 be, my person should be making the rules and frames and other things. And perhaps on that call, 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.
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 on it.
I agree, of course, with Raul that we see those anti democratic tendency 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 in the early days, so you know, in a new book on the making of the Constitution that Rohit de 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,
or meet 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?
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 Katie Shire member of the constituent assembly sent her agenda 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 sensors and the preparation of roles together, and Rajendra Prasad simply Passing the letter to the Secretary 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 politicisation around the census, but they sent it for an expert opinion. They sent it to a professor of Mathematics and Statistics, Katie Madhava, from Mysore University, and he wrote a report supporting their view that the two things should not be combined. II 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 is the president of the assembly approves that they should embark on this colossal task and I’m saying colossal test because it was preparing the roles for what at the time was anticipated and became to be more than 170 3 million people 85% of whom were illiterate. Now, Raul 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 Secretary does is by November 47, they sent the letter to all the governments of the states in the princely states. And they asked 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 British 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 bases going house to house village by village, door to door. And that’s how the whole thing started.
Yeah, and I think there are a lot of lessons to be learned from that process, even for policymaking in 2022. So, 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?
So you know, a, we have to remember that the National Movement had been committed to universal adult suffrage since the narrow 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 strengthen 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 debates, 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 and 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 IDE started to have reservations about university franchise and he started to think whether it should be actually granted gradually or even he suggested concretely to utilize our 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, HVR, Yang Gary collected became very angry. And what yangarra described is how Nehru thumb 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 a younger said, he would broke no controversy over that. So there was also a very strong political wheel despite all the challenges, but in fact, Lea, 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 went until 1965. Aboriginals were prohibited from voting in federal and state election. They received the vote in India only later, some people in 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 was specified under the sixth shedule of the Constitution, the Part B tribal areas were also excluded from the franchise. There were allotted one seat to the Lok Sabha, to be filled by 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 he 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 had got only 1963. So there were exclusions to that we have to remember.
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
India democratic experiment, in some ways, was a great leap of faith? And there will 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 prediction in 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 77. We had three delimitation exercises, constituency boundaries were changed. We started in 52, where there were lots of constituencies which had three member consequences triple member constituency, 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 only 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 year 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 10 people, there was a time in 1996, when actually the average went above 31. 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 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 election 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 this countries. But again, there is a story of democratization we should not forget,
in 2018, there was this survey done by Azim Premji University and Lok Neeti, called politics and society between elections. And they found that only 35% of the people surveyed said that the cost 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?
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 in this 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 so shallow 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 election is going to lose across social identities. And this is empirical fact like there is 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 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 for a party Janta party, elites policies and programs and nomination pattern is likely to prefer upper caste of the society, right. And so that’s how this caste party or Legion party relationships get formed. And these are very, very stable. It doesn’t change every election. And it doesn’t change with moving off one or two caste leaders from this party or that party. So during the lectures, especially TV media, people actually get excited, oh, this leader has moved to that party, that means the cast is going with them. No, that’s not how the cast party relationship is built. These are very, very solid relationship. And that’s why they survived the test of time. And Framers of our Constitution we’re aware about like combate, 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 programs or reservation, in elections in state assemblies in Lok Sabha. But if you think about earlier, we also had this for Muslims in 37 and 46 election, 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 73rd 74th amendment took place, we have 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. One, 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 90s was different than what we are seeing from 2014 onwards.