As newly independent India set about becoming a democracy, the press played a crucial role

Preparing electoral rolls on the basis of universal adult franchise was the greatest experiment in democratic history and needed a narrative for the public.

It was indeed through the press and reports on governments’ press communiqués that the wider public became aware of problems that arose in the preparation of rolls. Thus, the press reported that “in view of the reluctance of Indian women to give their names, the Government [of UP] have issued a warning that failure to state names by women will mean their disenfranchisement”. Another related short story informed that in Jullundur, the General Secretary of the Provincial Branch of the All-India Women’s Conference, Shrimati Seeta Devi, “appealed to women to get themselves registered as voters so that they could send their representatives to legislatures to safeguard the interest of women”.

Newspaper stories about the preparation of electoral rolls elicited public engagement with the anticipated universal adult franchise.

Indeed, through the press, as Pierre Rosanvallon has suggested, members of the public could experience “the right to give advice” and to have “a constitutive voice in public affairs”. Newspaper editorials, op-eds, interviews and letters to the editor offered meditations on the meaning and implications of the right to vote, its connection to democratic citizenship and with responsible government, and democracy more broadly.

A passionate article on “The Power of Your Vote”, published shortly after the publication of the CAS [Constituent Assembly Secretariat]’s press note on the preparation of electoral rolls, implored readers to think about the “precious possession” they have got in their vote. “By your vote”, the author explained, “you have a voice in your Government. It empowers you directly or through a representative of your choice to be a party to the framing of the law.” The author made the connection between an individual’s vote and the cabinet ministers that would ultimately constitute their government. It conveyed the momentous character of the vote as one that could “help materially to transform the structure and the quality of your Government and consequently also the nature of society of which you are not an insignificant part”.

The importance of people’s thoughtful use of their right of franchise was also emphasised by writers and political figures at the time and reported in the press. For example, the Maharani of Scindia warned that: “On the correct exercise of franchise depends the welfare of the future generation, our country, our relations with the different nations, because we should and will be leaving these factors in the hands of those whom we empower to rule.”

There were also public expressions of doubt about the granting of the universal franchise. For example, early on in the preparation of rolls AD Shroff was reported to have said that “the country was not prepared for adult franchise, which, he said, should be introduced gradually”. Moreover, actual experiences with elections to constituent assemblies in some states or newly formed Unions of States also exposed genuine problems. Thus, following the elections for a Constituent Assembly in Saurashtra, there were reports of 250 cases of impersonation during the election, and of the secrecy of the ballot being violated in many places. After the first municipal elections in Sambhar Lake, Rajputana, the Secretary of the Salt Merchants’ Association complained the electoral roll was full of mistakes, that the names of some mohallas were omitted and that wrong details of voters have been recorded. He concluded by stating that “the forthcoming [general] election, if held under these circumstances, will not represent the true wishes and aspirations of the people of Sambhar”.

As the preparation of the rolls progressed, even the President of the Constituent Assembly, Rajendra Prasad, who was the senior most political figure who approved and oversaw the steps taken by the CAS regarding the preparation of the rolls, had misgivings about adult franchise.

Prasad was quoted to have said at a public address that the adoption of adult franchise “was causing him and his colleagues grave anxiety...Unless properly exercised, adult franchise was fraught with grave dangers. It would mean putting educated and ignorant and honest and dishonest persons on the same footing.”

Just before the draft constitution was brought for consideration before the Constituent Assembly in November 1948, the Times of India editorial stated:

Certain principles embodied in the draft constitution have been called into question since their adoption by the Constituent Assembly or its committees. One of these is adult franchise. Although the leadership of the Congress is committed to this principle, there is growing evidence of anxiety lest in the present state of the masses’ education the vesting of this powerful political weapon in the entire adult population should lead to abuse of the democratic system.

No less than Dr Rajendra Prasad has given expression to hesitancy in this behalf. A similar feeling was voiced in the Madras legislature when that body discussed the draft constitution six months ago. Constitutional pundits ask. “Are we going to be governed by the ignorant, the unwise, ‘the thriftless’?” It may be a trifle late in the day to go back on the principle of universal suffrage, but the Constituent Assembly might profitably consider devices which would minimise the danger of unrestricted political power in the hands of millions not yet sufficiently trained in the art of democratic government. 

A Hindustan Times editorial noted that “the question of adult franchise has lately exercised the minds of many thinkers. It is too late, we feel, to go back on decisions already taken twice by the Assembly on the subject but the doubts to which Dr Rajendra Prasad recently gave expression suggest that for at least ten years elections to the Lower House of the Indian Parliament should be through electoral colleges totalling in membership about a million of the elect [sic] of the people.”

A reader’s response to the Times of India editorial suggested that the “real danger lies in entrusting the precious right to vote to our raw young men, swayed by temptations deliberately placed in their way by those who seek their suffrage during the hectic days of electioneering”.

The reader proposed raising the age of voters to 28 instead of 21, the age level “where young men and women are faced with the cruel realities of life and are expected to get a little more sober”.

Opinion pieces in the press, and the ongoing reporting about various aspects of the preparation of electoral rolls and its effects continued the process of narrating the roll, capturing the story’s components and its whole. Thus, reporting in the press, despite its fragmented nature, provided the narrative of the preparation of rolls with some sustained coherence. The reproduction of parallel stories from different parts of the country also provided a new way of thinking about an India. The prolonged serialisation of the story, the narrations about the preparation of rolls in relatively regular instalments in the press, ultimately recounted the ambitious journey of India’s transition to democracy. It was a story of monumental historical significance, grand in scope, and therefore, as suggested earlier, like an epic of India becoming a democracy.

Excerpted with permission from How India Became Democratic: Citizenship and the Making of the Universal Franchise, Ornit Shani, Penguin Random House India.

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