Within two years of Independence, the makers of modern India had set up the Election Commission. They clearly knew the first general elections would be an important step towards propping up democracy after centuries of colonial rule.
Sukumar Sen, a mathematician educated in the London University, was appointed the Chief Election Commissioner in March 1950, a month before the Representation of the People Act was passed in Parliament. Jawaharlal Nehru, who was then the interim prime minister of India, expressed hope that the elections be carried out by as early as the spring of 1951.
It was a gigantic task as hand. “A newly independent country chose to move straight to universal adult suffrage, rather than – as had been the case in the West – at first reserve the right to vote to men of property, with the working class and women excluded from the franchise until much later,” writes historian Ramachandra Guha in his book ‘India after Gandhi’. He goes on to note that “India’s first general election was, among other things, an act of faith”. The colossal scale of the elections and its preparation was perhaps the reason why it was postponed, finally taking place in the winter of 1951-52.
The electoral preparation
The general outlines of the electoral system had been laid down by years of practice under the British. Therefore, not much time was spent in Parliament debating the type of electoral system. Rather, it was the vastness of the undertaking that was a challenge to the Election Commission. The electorate was as large as 176 million people, of whom about 85 per cent was unable to read or write. Each and every one among them had to be identified, named and registered.
More than 1,600 registrars went on a house-to-house survey to enroll the electorate. An additional problem in the registration of voters arose from the ambiguous status of refugees from Pakistan. Yet another challenge was the registration of women voters. In the preliminary rolls, approximately four million women had been registered as “wife of” or “daughter of”. Annoyed at what he called “a curious senseless relic of the past”, Sen directed officials to correct the rolls inserting the names of the women. However, despite every effort, about two million women refused to register their names and were consequently struck off the electoral roll. A more complicated procedure was the assigning of reserved seats for the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes.
But registration of voters was merely the first step. The bigger challenge was how to design party symbols on ballot papers and ballot boxes for a largely illiterate electorate. The election commission carefully controlled the nature of party symbols to be used. No religious or political symbol could be used like the spinning wheel, cow, hammer and sickle. The symbols had to be drawn from daily life, and easily recognisable.
Considering that a mostly illiterate electorate might make a mistake on a single ballot, multiple boxes were used, each with a party’s symbol on it. Further, to avoid impersonation, a variety of indelible ink was developed which stayed on the finger for a week. A total of 389,816 phials of ink was used for the elections.
Throughout 1951, the Election Commission used the medium of film and radio to educate the electorate about the voting procedure.
The first elections in the country was fought among a diverse group of political parties. A total of 53 parties and 533 independents for the 489 seats. Foremost among them was the Indian National Congress, the party most closely associated with the freedom movement. Important among those opposing it included J B Kriplani’s Kisan Majdoor Praja Party (KMPP), the Socialist Party led by Jayaprakash Narayan, Shyama Prasad Mukherjee’s Jana Sangh, and B R Ambedkar’s Scheduled Caste Federation.
While the KMPP and the socialist party led campaigns accusing the Congress of having betrayed its commitment to the poor, the Jana Sangh sought to consolidate the Hindus into one voting bloc through speeches that frequently invoked imageries from Hindu mythological tales. Ambedkar meanwhile criticised the Congress in his speeches of having failed to have uplifted the lower castes.
There was also the Communist Party of India (CPI) which resurfaced in the political scenario after 1948, right in time to fight the election. They conducted programmes on Moscow Radio to convey to Indian listeners that non-communist parties were nothing but oppressors of the workers.
Nehru, on the other hand, travelled across the country by car, air and train, making fiery speeches that attacked communalism and its many advocates. As Guha notes in his book, he started off his campaign with a speech in Ludhiana on September 30, 1951. “The choice of the venue was significant, as was the thrust of his talk, which declared an all-out war against communalism,” writes Guha. “These sinister communal elements would if they came to power bring ruin and death to the country,” roared Nehru. In the course of nine weeks, Nehru addressed 300 mass meetings, and several other smaller ones.
The voting started out on October 25, 1951 in the remote hill areas of Himachal Pradesh and carried on for the next four months. The last phase of voting was held in the hill districts of Uttar Pradesh on February 21, 1952. An estimated 51.5 per cent of the electorate went to polls. Approximately 105 million valid votes were cast in the 476 out of 489 constituencies.
Parties were prohibited from providing transportation for fear it would influence voters. Hence, several of them had to walk about 10 miles each way to vote. They queued up patiently before the first official who checked their names on the roll. Subsequently, they went across three other officials who guided them to the polling station, gave them the assembly ballot, and applied indelible ink on their finger. The voter then went into the curtained enclosure and dropped the ballot paper in the desired box. They were then required to repeat the process for the assembly elections.
Despite the thin spread of trained administrative staff, the elections were on the whole noted to be well planned and executed. Polling was adjourned in merely seven stations on for breach of law and order. Re-polling was required in 195 other stations due to a variety of factors including the provision of defective indelible ink.
The results of the election was far from being unexpected. The Congress made a landslide victory, winning 364 out of 489 seats in the Parliament and 2247 out of 3280 seats in the Assemblies. Nehru in turn became the first democratically elected prime minister of the country. Interestingly though the largest majority was achieved by the CPI member Ravi Narayan Reddy.
One of the most notable defeats was that of Ambedkar in the Bombay constituency by a little known Congress candidate Narayan Sadoba Kajrolkar.
The conclusion of the first general elections was soon followed by several rounds of praises from journalists and politicians across the world. The newly formed Election Commission and and 176 million voters of a newborn democracy were hailed as heroes of what was noted as one of the largest elections in the world. Criticism followed as well, particularly of the fact that the British model was followed more closely than was perhaps necessary. Yet it was perhaps the British model itself, that eased out the process in itself. As Guha concludes in his book, “the 1952 election was a script jointly authored by historical forces for so long opposed to one another: British colonialism and Indian nationalismBetween them these forces had given the new nation what could fairly be described as a jump-start to democracy.”