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How India Became Democratic

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How India Became Democratic explores the greatest experiment in democratic human history. It tells the untold story of the preparation of the electoral roll on the basis of universal adult franchise in the world's largest democracy. Ornit Shani offers a new view of the institutionalisation of democracy in India, and of the way democracy captured the political imagination of its diverse peoples. Turning all adult Indians into voters against the backdrop of the partition of India and Pakistan, and in anticipation of the drawing up of a constitution, was a staggering task. Indians became voters before they were citizens - by the time the constitution came into force in 1950, the abstract notion of universal franchise and electoral democracy were already grounded. Drawing on rich archival materials, Shani shows how the Indian people were a driving force in the making of democratic citizenship as they struggled for their voting rights.


‘This is a subtle and impressive work of scholarship, which breaks new ground in the history of modern India. Using the rich, previously neglected, archive of the Election Commission, Ornit Shani documents how multi-party democracy based on adult franchise was established in a large, diverse, divided, and desperately poor country. The research is deep and thorough, the analysis robust and thought-provoking, the writing clear and often vivid. All those interested in modern India, as well as in the history of democratic practice more generally, would profit from a close reading of this book.'

Ramachandra Guha - author of India after Gandhi

‘Through a deep archival excavation of how the first electoral roll of independent India was prepared, Ornit Shani gives us an extraordinary account of the formation of the democratic imagination – of both citizens and state personnel. This is a fascinating, hitherto untold story of the building blocks of democratic citizenship at the founding moment of the republic.'

Niraja Gopal Jayal - Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi

‘Ornit Shani's terrific new history shows how Indians made their new democracy after 1947, from the national debates on which men and women should vote, to solving the many practical challenges on the ground. A landmark study.'

Steven Wilkinson - Yale University, Connecticut

‘This important book goes further than any other in explaining the origin of Indian democracy, how and why it works. Based on wide reading in history and political science, and firmly grounded in hitherto unexplored archival material, Ornit Shani shows that the high idealism about citizenship and democracy in independent India was made real by careful consultation and planning, from 1946 onwards, of a small group of administrative officers, constitutional lawyers and politicians. These framers of the new Indian constitution and the creation of the Indian Electoral Commission surely stand alongside the Founding Fathers of the United States of America in their brilliant practicality establishing a vibrant democratic system for the post-imperial era. Ornit Shani's book, therefore, is of interest not just to those who want to know about the Indian experience but for anyone seeking to understand the many and varied forms democracy takes in our contemporary world.'

Gordon Johnson - University of Cambridge

'Few people get to tell a fundamentally important new story. This is what Ornit Shani does in her second book, How India Became Democratic, in which she reveals the extraordinary tale of a handful of Indian bureaucrats who drew up India’s first electoral rolls, before India had adopted a Constitution and therefore a definition of who was a citizen … How India Became Democratic makes a number of significant contributions.'

Gilles Verniers Source: The Indian Express

'In Ornit Shani’s excellent new book How India Became Democratic, about the creation of the electoral roll and how it enabled universal franchise, she quotes from the letters of advice and appeal that Indians sent the Constituent Assembly secretariat, which was broadly in charge.'

Vikram Doctor Source: The Economic Times

'… a major contribution to the study of Indian democracy, modern Indian history, and the study of democratization more broadly. It should be required reading for students of Indian democracy. Future scholars can profitably expand on Shani’s work, which is the first foray into the study of ordinary Indians and their contributions to a democracy that has now withstood the test of seven decades.'

Source: India Ink (

'How India Became Democratic argues persuasively that in transforming voting from a privilege that was accorded to a select few to a right that could be enforced by all, independent India transformed the status of its people from subjects to citizens, in important and far-reaching ways.'

Gautam Bhatia Source: The Hindu

'This book is remarkable not because it uncovers something deep and concealed from the ordinary eye, but because it reveals the extraordinariness of things that had all along been in obvious sight, perhaps so close that we just did not see it. Ornit Shani’s book breaks new ground because she relates the enduring character of Indian democracy to something so humdrum, so routinised that it has remained unaccounted for in the story of Indian democracy - the conduct of universal adult franchise.'

Rajshree Chandra Source: Open

'… the result of extensive research into the archival material of the Election Commission, National Archives of India and the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library.'

Aprameya Rao Source: First Post (

'Ornit Shani’s How India Became Democratic: Citizenship and the Making of the Universal Franchise is a one-of-its-kind study, focusing on the preparation of India’s first electoral roll in 1949.'

Nidheesh M. K. Source: Live Mint (

'Shani’s is a valuable addition to the scarce literature on the study of the democratic enigma that is India. Any person wanting to understand the process of India’s democratic transition must read this book.'

Y. S. Quraishi Source: Outlook

'A stunning study of the process that turned Indians into voters even as the founding fathers were writing the constitution. … Now, in a book that cannot be recommended enough, Ornit Shani deepens the scholarship of that vitally Indian connect between exercising one’s franchise and being a citizen.'

Mini Kapoor Source: The Hindu

'How India Became Democratic, by Israeli scholar Ornit Shani, is the meticulously researched and rivetingly told story of how this was achieved and of the unsung heroes who did it.'

Aditya Nath Jha Source: Swarajya

'… a clear glimpse into the integrity, passion and commitment with which the republic’s first generation went about creating its institutions.'

Mihir Sharma Source: Business Standard

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