People in India often despair of their democracy

May 31, 2018

IN THE spring of 1947 the leaders of India’s independence movement reached a fateful decision. The right to vote in the soon-to-be-born Indian republic, they agreed, would no longer be restricted as under the British Raj, but open to every adult citizen. The move created the world’s largest democracy, and also burdened it with a colossal challenge. As Ornit Shani, an Israeli historian, deftly explains in a new book, the logistics alone were daunting. With more than 170m eligible voters to register—some 85% of them illiterate back then—it took tens of thousands of workers two full years just to compile the rolls for India’s first general election, conducted in 1951. At the time Rajendra Prasad, a politician who was to become the country’s first president, made a back-of-envelope calculation. Bound in one volume, he reckoned, the voter lists would be 200 metres thick.

Today that “phone book” is five times thicker. At India’s next general election, to be held sometime in the coming year, more than...

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