AS Bihar prepares for polls in the midst of a pandemic, the rules of the game, from campaigning to voting, are being rewritten, with the state expected to set the template for future polls. Nearly 70 years ago, when the first Lok Sabha and Vidhan Sabha elections took place in independent India in 1951-52, a similar political reset was in the works across India, including Bihar.
Politicians belting out party promises set to catchy tunes, big leaders campaigning on cycles, women travelling in ‘veiled’ bullock carts to reach the polling stations, and booths with ballot boxes in different colours and marked with party symbols to help a largely unlettered population spot their candidate — the 1952 Bihar election, held in the afterglow of India’s Independence, was both “euphoric” and “challenging”.
“The 1952 polls set some ground rules. People were unsure about campaigning, issues… The Congress party was hugely popular because of the freedom struggle. They started their campaign by launching slogans around its election symbol, a pair of bullocks,” says former IPS officer and ex-Congress MP Nikhil Kumar. The 79-year-old’s grandfather Dr Anugrah Narayan Sinha was the first deputy CM of Bihar, and his father S N Sinha was the state’s 19th CM.
“The atmosphere was euphoric. India was free. People from every section of society were with the Congress. Jawaharlal Nehru was a national hero,” says Congress leader Shakeel Ahmad whose father, the late Shakoor Ahmad, had won from Khajauli seat in 1952. “Partition had scarred Indian Muslims, but the Congress party reassured them. In Bihar, 100 per cent of them were with Nehru,” he says.
While the Congress was confident of a victory, within the party’s state unit there was a clash between its two stalwarts. “Shri Babu (Shri Krishna Sinha) was known as Bihar Kesari and my grandfather was called Bihar Vibhuti. You cannot call them rivals, but they were both very big mass leaders,” says Kumar. Along with Rajendra Prasad, India’s first president, the three men were regarded among the architects of modern Bihar.
The position of the three leaders and their communities on the abolition of the zamindari system was “the biggest election issue in Bihar 1952”.
“In the years after Independence, led by farm labourers and the OBC community, demand for abolition of the zamindari system peaked. The Bhumihar zamindars supported it but the Rajput-Kayastha lobby opposed it. This led to friction among Krishna Sinha, who was from the Bhumihar community, Anugrah Sinha, a Rajput, and Rajendra Prasad, a Kayastha. After Rajendra Prasad moved on to assume the President’s office, the rift continued, with the party being divided into two factions. Once, Abdul Kalam Azad had to come down from Delhi to sort issues,” says Prof Pushpendra Kumar Singh of the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Patna.
The only challenge to the Congress came from the Socialist Party (SP), a Congress faction that broke away in the 1930s under the leadership of stalwarts such as Jayaprakash Narayan and Ram Manohar Lohia.
“They spoke for the peasants. They spoke out against the Tatas. While they were not the sole voice of the OBCs or Dalits, they had their support. In Sahpur, from where my father Ramanand Tiwari won in 1952 on an SP ticket, many Dalits voted for him,” recalls senior RJD leader Shivanand Tiwari, 77.
But Bihar hadn’t yet discovered caste as an election tool, says Kumar. “When JP and Lohia said ‘backward’ in their speeches, they meant the poor across all castes. Sometime in the 1960s, backward came to be associated with certain castes in Bihar,” he says.
Among the many challenges then, says Tiwari, was to get the women to vote. “Women in Bihar those days didn’t write their surnames. That made it very hard to identify them at polling stations,” he says.
But, he recalls, “When the day for voting arrived, women would make their way to the polling booths in bullock carts, singing songs all the way… The elections were like a festival. I was around 10-11 years old then.”
While in the later years booth capturing and violence became common, in 1952, says Singh of TISS Patna, “the first CEC Sukumar Sen did a good job”. “Bihar’s literacy rate was abysmal (13.4%) and so, like in the rest of the country, the EC put up ballot boxes in different colours to help people identify their candidate. The polling agent, usually a local who knew everyone, could challenge somebody if he thought he was an imposter. The presiding officer took a final call. The ballot paper also had to be folded in a particular way to be counted.”
Polling for the state’s 330 Assembly seats took place on March 26, 1952, and the voter turnout was 42.6%. With 239 seats, the Congress won the polls and Shri Krishna Sinha became CM. The Socialist Party came a distant second with 23 seats. (Source ECI)
Recalling the times then, the Congress’ Ahmad says, “There was a lot of respect among leaders for each other. One of the stories from that time is how, despite being the CM, Shri Babu gave Anugrah Sinha the responsibility of selecting the Cabinet. These things don’t happen now.”
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