India’s Democracy at 70: The Impact of Instant Universal Suffrage

Issue Date July 2017
Volume 28
Issue 3
Page Numbers 86-95
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When the authors of India’s Constitution took the extraordinarily bold step of establishing universal suffrage, thus giving the right to vote to all adult citizens, India became the world’s first large democracy to adopt universal adult suffrage from its very inception. We call India’s move “instant universal suffrage,” and distinguish it from the more common historical experience of “incremental suffrage,” where suffrage rights broadened over an extended period of time. We argue that by giving every citizen of an incredibly ethnically and religiously diverse nation a voice in choosing rulers, instant universal suffrage has been a great nation-building and nation-preserving tool. But it has hurt state-building and state capacity. Incremental suffrage might have strengthened state capacity in India, but could well have endangered India’s survival as a nation.