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Journey of the Secret Ballot

Nirja Gopal Jayal

Edited by Romain Bertrand, Jean-Louis Briquet and Peter Pels
Hurst & Co, London, 2007, pp. 256, price not stated.


Although it presents itself as a historical ethnography, this is as much a volume in the rather rare but always exciting genre of political ethnography. The essays explore – in a variety of country contexts, some historical, others contemporary – the meaning of the vote as a material technology as well as performance. While elections as ritual performances or festive occasions have received some scholarly attention, the idea of studying the secret ballot is an imaginative one, and all the more valuable because it spans the experiences of countries as dissimilar as the United States and Britain, on the one hand, and Iran, Indonesia, India and Tanzania (to name only a few) on the other.   The adoption of the secret ballot as the central instrument of elections is obviously not unrelated to the principle of universal suffrage. In India, the Sapru Committee recommended – in the face of some opposition amongst members of the Constituent Assembly – that universal adult franchise be adopted by the infant republic. In opposition to the objection that unlettered voters lacked political competence, the Committee offered the argument that exercising the franchise would itself become a means of political education. That the worry about the political competence of the ordinary citizen was fairly widespread is signalled by Nehru’s relieved declaration, after the first General Election, that all his doubts on this score had been conclusively settled.   This embededdness of the act of voting in the conceptually antecedent idea of universal adult franchise – with its inclusion of all, including and especially disadvantaged and unempowered groups – is prefigured in the history of western democracies. Though the essayists in this volume do not dwell on this connection, John Crowley’s essay does suggest that, in the United States, the idea that political competence is not a special skill was reflected in the concurrent acknowledgement of the capacity of citizens to vote and to do jury duty.   India’s adoption of the universal adult franchise and the secret ballot at the moment of its constitution as a modern republican polity appears a radical departure when compared to the history of countries which required a literacy qualification for the franchise. Indeed, historically, the transition from an oral public culture of voting to the tradition of the written or printed secret ballot was accompanied by the spread of literacy and the creation of a civic culture. As the essays in this volume show, this ...

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