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The first vote cast

Now that the election fever is mounting by the minute — and political parties are enlivening the scene by breaking up old marriages...

Written by Inder Malhotra |
March 20, 2009 12:07:00 am

Now that the election fever is mounting by the minute — and political parties are enlivening the scene by breaking up old marriages,contracting new ones and sometimes remarrying the discarded partner — it is time to look back on the first general election that was the historic beginning of the electoral process with Indian characteristics. It was indeed a great gamble that richly paid off.

In fact,there was no dearth of thinking people,Indian and foreigners,who said loudly that it was “crazy” to have adult suffrage in a country of India’s size and diversity,especially when nearly three-fourths of the 173 million voters were illiterate. Hadn’t the western democracies extended the suffrage to every adult in slow stages? Even Jawaharlal Nehru who had insisted that these elections must be held and at the earliest date,did develop second thoughts sometimes,but he was too strongly committed to the principle that the people must have the right to govern themselves.

Another daunting factor was the sheer immensity of the task. Since the elections were to be held for both Parliament and all state assemblies,two million steel ballot boxes had to be manufactured and transported to 224,000 polling booths in about 4,000 constituencies. A million government employees had to be mobilised to conduct the elections. The man who brilliantly organised all this was Sukumar Sen,an ICS officer who until then was chief secretary of West Bengal. If Nehru was the undoubted hero of this mammoth exercise in every sense of the word,Sen was its side-hero.

Ironically,having let the genie out of the bottle,Nehru got greatly depressed. What “filled him with dismay” was the selection of Congress candidates that he described as “disgusting”. What got his goat were the “cliques”,“bossism”,the “scramble” and “lack of organisation”. In separate letters to Krishna Menon,Vijayalakshmi and several others,he gave expression to his anger and frustration. To Edwina Mountbatten he wrote: “More and more I hate this election business,more especially the choosing of candidates… My dominant urge and desire today is somehow to reach the middle of February. Meanwhile,the intervening period is a nightmare.” When Morarji Desai objected “on principle” to his proposal not to put up Congress candidates against two Socialist leaders,Acharya Narendra Dev and Kamaladevi Chattopadhaya,Nehru shot back: that the Congress could hardly talk of principles when so many of its members were “snarling” for selection and “third-rate individuals were being chosen on grounds of caste and sub-caste. I have felt recently as if I was in a den of wild animals”.

His gloom vanished,however,once he embarked on electioneering and felt invigorated by the response to him of masses wherever he went. In all,he covered 25,000 miles by plane,train and car and addressed nearly 35 million people or a tenth of the country’s population at that time. I was lucky to be included in his press party on two occasions. After reporting that he began his day at six in the morning and ended it late at night,that surging crowds on both sides of road waited for hours to have a glimpse of him,and that he made at least six speeches of about 90 minutes each every day,I had added — rather impertinently for a rookie reporter — that,in fact,the prime minister made the “same speech at six different places,enjoining on the people national unity and secularism and vigorously condemning communalism”.

Voting began,in a remote corner of what is today Himachal Pradesh on October 25,1951— because all passes there become snowbound at the end of the month — and was completed across the country in the third week of February 1952. The results,when they came,exhilarated Nehru and the Congress party. All the sceptics admitted that they were wrong and that the prime minister’s faith had been amply vindicated. “The so-called illiterate voter,” Nehru declared,“showed greater civic sense than most people in towns”.

“From a purely democratic point of view,” he wrote,“the elections have been,I think,a remarkable success,except perhaps in Rajasthan and Saurashtra”. There,“feudal elements” had indulged in “intimidation”. Although 77 political parties,apart from Independents,had contested the elections,the Congress party won a two-thirds majority in the Lok Sabha and captured 3,772 seats in state assembles. Even so,the massive Nehru wave was stopped in the south,dominated then by the state of Madras that included today’s Tamil Nadu,all Andhra areas outside the princely state of Hyderabad and the Malabar region of what is today Kerala. In the newly elected Madras Assembly,the Congress was the largest single party but did not command a majority. Rejecting the rivals’ claims,the governor managed to install a Congress ministry,which is a separate and unsavoury story by itself.

Nehru was uncharacteristic but entirely right in writing to Krishna Menon: “It is true that without me in the Congress,there would have been no stable government in any State or in the Centre,and a process of disruption would have set in”.

Feudal elements and an array of defeated Congress ministers as well as fractious Congress committees were not the only ones to be the targets of Nehru’s ire: “It is astounding how low our press could sink in vulgarity and falsehood.” Looking back at newspaper headlines of January 1952,I am startled to discover that some of them are still with us,albeit with greater frequency and intensity. A few samples in point are “Congress Banks on Muslim Support”; “Caste Rivalries Weaken Bihar Congress”; “List of Nominees Causes Wider Split”. “Autonomy Demand in Manipur”. “Ministers Face Stiff Opposition” and so on. Sadly,one headline,ubiquitous then,we are unlikely to see all too often is “Polling Was Peaceful”.

The writer is a Delhi-based commentator

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