The eminent historian Ramachandra Guha has referred to India as ‘the most recklessly ambitious experiment in history’. With disregard for past precedent, following the British colonialists’ departure, India’s founding fathers took the bold decision to establish an independent republic which would abide by democratic principles and procedures. Crucially, India’s post-Independence republic guaranteed universal franchise for all adult citizens at a time when the vast majority of the country was living in abject poverty.

Milan Vaishnav
Milan Vaishnav is a senior fellow and director of the South Asia Program and the host of the Grand Tamasha podcast at Carnegie, where he focuses on India's political economy, governance, state capacity, distributive politics, and electoral behavior.
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While elections, of course, do not make a democracy, they are unquestionably the sine qua non of each and every democracy. Following the birth of independent India, the successful execution of participatory elections faced—and, in many ways, still faces today—a host of cumbersome challenges: profound ethnic, religious, linguistic, and cultural diversity; signifi cant geographic variation and a predominantly rural electorate; rampant poverty and illiteracy; and deeply ingrained forms of inequality. Any one of these challenges is large enough to vex election authorities in advanced democracies, so their compound effect in a nascent democracy cannot be overstated.

Against these considerable odds, the Election Commission of India (ECI) has proven to be a model of election management, earning plaudits both at home and abroad. Thanks to the wisdom of India’s founders, the Commission was given a solid foundation from the outset, having been established as a permanent, independent constitutionalbody. This is not to suggest that the Commission has not had to adapt to changing circumstances; the broad nature of its constitutional framework not only gave the Commission a solid underpinning, but also allowed for fl exibility in interpreting and enforcing its mandate....

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This chapter was originally published by Oxford University Press in Rethinking Public Institutions in India.