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Laying the foundation of a strong democracy

BySY Quraishi
Oct 29, 2021 04:51 PM IST

There were several factors that set the Indian elections apart, right from the start.

The foundation of all democracies is free and fair elections. India enjoys a pride of place as the largest democracy in the world with the most highly rated elections, described by Hillary Clinton as a gold standard. The country’s mind-boggling diversity and the vibrancy of its voters makes its elections a grand festival. The credit for envisioning this great institution goes to the founding fathers of the Constitution of India, and for making it a physical reality, to Sukumar Sen, an Indian Civil Service (ICS) officer, who was appointed as the first Chief Election Commissioner of India.

Appointed on 21 March, 1950, Sen did not waste a day to set in motion the preparations for the mammoth exercise. PREMIUM
Appointed on 21 March, 1950, Sen did not waste a day to set in motion the preparations for the mammoth exercise.

Appointed on 21 March, 1950, Sen did not waste a day to set in motion the preparations for the mammoth exercise. With no infrastructure in existence and very few persons who had any experience of elections, he pulled off a miracle by launching the first Indian elections from October 1951 to February 1952, with an astronomical 173 million registered voters.

There were several factors that set the Indian elections apart, right from the start. The first was universal adult franchise. India granted all citizens, men and women, above the age of 21 (reduced to 18 in 1989) the right to vote, something that the US took 144 years and UK 100 to do. The second was the sheer diversity of the competing electoral hopefuls. In the heralded democracies of the West, elections are held with two or at best three competing political parties. In India, however, the first elections saw 53 registered political parties competing for 489 seats for the Lower House of Parliament.

What made the task easier was that by the time the Constitution was adopted, the first CEC appointed, and the Representation of the People Act, 1950 passed, the bureaucracy of the Constituent Assembly Secretariat (CAS) had already prepared the electoral rolls for the largest electorate on the globe. The members of the secretariat such as B.N Rau, S.N. Mukherjee and P.S. Subramanian must be celebrated as the unsung heroes of Indian democracy, as they prepared the ground work necessary for the elections before they handed over control to the Chief Election Commissioner.

This is no less than a monument of bureaucratic foresight, initiative and accomplishment. This little known fact has been graphically brought out by Ornit Shani, in her recent book How India became Democratic.

At the time of independence, there were 17 provinces of British India which were reorganised into states. Then there was the matter of the princely states, 565 of them dotting the country, required to be reconfigured into the existing provinces, that ultimately led to 14 new states and 6 union territories which formed independent India.

The preparation of the first electoral rolls was a task mired in challenges. A vast majority of the country had never voted before, and were completely unfamiliar with the process and the importance of voting. A very large number of people had been erstwhile subjects of princely states, and did not understand the word voting at all! Then there was the matter of conservatism. Most women were still under purdah, and many were either not permitted or refused to give their own names for voter registration. This made the registering of potential voters very difficult. Adding to this was the question of the hundreds of thousands of refugees who kept pouring in through both borders with Pakistan which were still porous. However, it was in this matter that the true inclusive spirit of the Indian elections was shown; as the CAS voted to let a simple declaration to stay on in India be enough for registration, irrespective of whether the refugee had been in the country for 180 days, which had been the limit assigned. From refugees struggling to survive in unfamiliar surroundings to homeless people trying to eke out an existence in the metropolises of Bombay and Calcutta, everybody was included in the electoral rolls without exception. The CAS endeavoured to answer (and nearly did!) every letter of enquiry and clarification to make the elections a truly inclusive process. Voting instructions were sent to every city, village and tehsil; and more than 200,000 police and security guards were deployed all over the country to assist in establishing and protecting the thousands of polling booths that were set up.

Sukumar Sen proved to be more than a match for the task. Logistics was the foremost issue. Transport to the remotest parts of the country was arranged by any means available, including elephants. Ballot sheets and boxes were prepared, indelible ink arranged, political party symbols were designed to make things easier for the 84% illiterate voters. Attention was given to every detail, every possible factor, including the weather. In certain tehsils like Chini, in what is now Himachal Pradesh, locals went to polls earlier than the rest of the country as the winter snow would make the passes leading to the tehsil impassable. As much as 80.5% voter turnout was recorded in places such as the Kottayam district in Kerala, a testament to the enthusiasm of the Indian people to exercise their franchise.

The legacy that the first Indian elections left behind has been amply upheld. Those were the largest election in world history then; they have only gone bigger. My guess is that almost 80% of the electoral system today is the legacy of Sukumar Sen. Through turbulent times and innumerable challenges, the indomitable will of the Indian people to exercise their democratic right has prevailed, and will continue to be an example of democracy in diversity across South Asia and the world.

(The writer is former Chief Election Commissioner of India and the author of ‘An Undocumented Wonder — The Making of the Great Indian Election’)

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