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The biggest gamble in history

It is 50 years since the country's first general election — an act of faith without parallel. The world, most parts of which were in turmoil, watched as a newly independent country, with numerous problems, chose to move straight into universal adult franchise. Intriguingly, the polls were to coincide with a general election in the U.K.. In the first of a two-part article, noted historian RAMACHANDRA GUHA highlights the features of a unique exercise in social organisation, paying tribute to the organisers and looking at the politicians who mattered.


A poster issued by the Central Publicity Board of the Congress. About 7,50,000 copies were distributed. All parties had one target - the ruling Congress.

WINSTON CHURCHILL once remarked, "parliamentary democracy is the worst political system known to man — except for all the others". He said this in the 1930s, when that form of government was particularly vulnerable to criticism. Influential sections on the right argued that democracy led to an unnecessary clamour of voices. They claimed the will of the people could best be expressed through a single dominant party ruled by a single dominant individual: Such as a Duce or a Fuhrer. On the left, it was fashionable to decry the process of election as a sham masking class interest: this was mere "bourgeois democracy", to be replaced, sooner rather than later, by an authentic "Peoples Democracy".

World War II put paid to fascism. Communist regimes still exist, but it is now hard to defend them. History has shown that, in a "peoples democracy", the party substitutes for the people, and the Politburo and the General Secretary for the party. Thus, no longer are advocates of bourgeois democracy beleaguered: they can be vocal, articulate and, when the occasion demands, polemical. Such were the dissidents who opposed and finally overcame the Stalinist regimes of Eastern Europe; and such are the Indians who, regardless of party affiliation, came together in the wake of the terrorist attack on Parliament to affirm their support for the values and institutions of democracy.

In a welcome coincidence, it is now exactly 50 years since India's first General Elections, a massive act of faith without any proper parallel in the history of humankind. A newly independent country chose to move straight into universal adult franchise, rather than — as was the case in the West — at first reserve the right to vote to men of property, with the working class and women granted the right later, and only after they had struggled hard for it. India became free in August 1947, and two years later set up an Election Commission. In March 1950, Sukumar Sen was appointed Chief Election Commissioner. The next month the Representation of the People Act was passed in Parliament. While proposing the Act, the Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, expressed the hope that elections would be held as early as the spring of 1951.

Nehru's haste was understandable, but it was viewed with some alarm by the man who had to make the election possible, a man who is an unsung hero of Indian democracy. It is a pity we know so little about Sukumar Sen. He left no memoirs and, it appears, no papers either.

Born in 1899, he was educated at Presidency College and at London University, where he was awarded a gold medal in Mathematics. He joined the Indian Civil Service in 1921, and served in various districts and as a judge before being appointed Chief Secretary of West Bengal in 1947, from where he was sent on deputation as chief election commissioner.

It was perhaps the mathematician in Sen, which made him ask the prime minister to wait. No officer of State, certainly no Indian official, has ever had such a stupendous task placed in front of him. Consider, first of all, the size of the electorate: 176 million Indians aged 21 or more, of whom about 85 per cent could not read or write. Each voter had to be identified, named and registered. This registration of voters was merely the first step. For how did one design party symbols, ballot papers and ballot boxes for a mostly unlettered electorate? Then, polling stations had to be built and properly spaced out, and honest and efficient polling officers recruited. Voting has to be as transparent as possible, to allow for the fair play of the multiplicity of parties that would contest. Moreover, with the general election would take place elections to the State Assemblies. Working with Sukumar Sen in this regard were the election commissioners of the different provinces, also I.C.S. men.


Jawaharlal Nehru addressing a crowd at Dharmavaram railway station from atop the platform railings.

The polls were finally scheduled for the first months of 1952. An American observer justly wrote that the mechanics of the election "present a problem of colossal proportions". Some numbers will help us understand the scale of Sen's enterprise. At stake were 4,500 seats — about 500 for Parliament, the rest for the provincial assemblies. Two lakh twenty four thousand polling booths had to be constructed, and equipped with about two million steel ballot boxes. For the making of these boxes 8,200 tonnes of steel was required. Sixteen thousand five hundred clerks were appointed on six-month contracts for typing and collating the electoral rolls, constituency-wise. About 380,000 reams of paper were used for printing the rolls. Fifty six thousand presiding officers were chosen to supervise the voting, these aided by another 280,000, so to say, "lesser" staff. Two lakh twenty four thousand policemen were put on duty to stop violence and intimidation.

The elections and the electorate were spread out over an area of more than a million square miles. The terrain was huge, diverse and — for the exercise at hand — sometimes horrendously difficult. In the case of remote hill villages, bridges had to be specially constructed across rivers; in the case of small islands in the India Ocean, naval vessels used to take the rolls to the booths. A second problem was social rather than geographical: the diffidence of many women in northern India to give their own names, instead of which they wished to register themselves as A's mother or B's wife. Sukumar Sen was outraged by this practice, a "curious senseless relic of the past", and directed his officials to correct the rolls by inserting the names of the women "in the place of mere descriptions of such voters". Nonetheless, some 2.8 million women voters had finally to be struck off the list. The resulting furore over their omission was considered by Sen to be a "good thing", for it would help the prejudice vanish by the next elections, by which time the women could be reinstated under their own names.

The nature of the electorate brought about novel innovations. One was the use of large pictorial symbols by which the illiterate voters could identify their party of choice. Drawn from daily life, these symbols were easily recognisable: a pair of bullocks for one party, a hut for a second, an elephant for a third, an earthen lamp for a fourth. A second innovation was the use of multiple ballot boxes. On a single ballot, the Indian elector might make a mistake; thus each party had a ballot box with its symbol marked in each polling station, so that voters could simply drop their paper in it. To avoid impersonation, Indian scientists had developed a variety of indelible ink which, applied on the <147,1,0>voter's finger, stayed there for a week. A total of 3,89,816 phials of this ink were used in the polls.

IT is instructive to reflect on the international situation in the months leading up to India's general election. Elsewhere in Asia, the French were fighting the Viet-Minh, and United Nation troops thwarting a North Korean offensive. In South Africa, the Afrikaner National Party had disenfranchised the Cape Coloureds, the last non-White group to have the vote. The United States had just tested its first Hydrogen bomb, MacLean and Burgess had just defected to Russia. 1951 had witnessed three political assassinations: of the King of Jordan, of the Prime Minister of Iran and, most relevant to the case at hand, of the Prime Minister of Pakistan, Liaquat Ali Khan, shot dead on October 16, nine days before the first votes were cast in India.

Most intriguingly, the polls in India were to coincide with a general election in the United Kingdom. The old warhorse Winston Churchill was seeking to bring his Conservatives back into power. Notably, back in the 1930s and 1940s, Churchill resisted the granting of independence to India: he had not become the King's First Minister, he said, to preside over the liquidation of the British Empire. That work had fallen to his successor, Clement Atlee, who, as Labour Prime Minister, had signed the act that allowed the British to finally withdraw from the sub-continent.

In the U.K. the elections were basically a two-party show. In India, however, there was a dazzling diversity of parties and leaders. In power was Jawaharlal Nehru's Indian National Congress, the chief legatee and beneficiary of the freedom movement. Opposing it were a variety of more-or-less new parties formed by some greatly gifted individuals. There was the Kisan Mazdoor Praja Party, started by the veteran Gandhian J. B. Kripalani. There was the Socialist Party, whose leading lights included the young hero of the "Quit India" rebellion of 1942, Jayaprakash Narayan.

The parties of Kripalani and Narayan accused the Congress of betraying its commitment to the poor. They claimed to stand for the ideals of the old, so to say "Gandhian", Congress, which placed the interests of workers and peasants before those of landlords and capitalists. A different kind of critique was offered by the Jan Sangh, which sought to consolidate India's largest religious grouping, the Hindus, into one solid voting block. The party's aims were well expressed in the symbolism of its inaugural meeting, held in New Delhi on September 21, 1951. The session began with a recitation from the Vedas and a singing of the patriotic hymn, Vande Matram. On the rostrum sat the party's founder, Shyama Prasad Mukherjee, along with other leaders, behind them a

<11,2m,2m>White background (with) pictures of Shivaji, Lord Krishna persuading the remorse-stricken Arjuna to take up arms to fight the evil forces of the Kauravas on the battle-field of Kurukshetra, Rana Pratap Singh and of an earthen deepak, in saffron. From the pandal hung banners inscribed with "Sangh Shakthi Kali Yuge", a dictum taken from (the) Mahabharat, professing to tell the people who attended the convention that in the age of Kali there was force only in (Jan) Sangh.

The imagery was striking: taken from the Hindu epics but also invoking those Hindu warriors who had later fought the Muslim invader. But who, one wonders, represented the evil enemy, the Kauravas? Was it Pakistan, the Muslims, Jawaharlal Nehru or the Congress party? All figured as hate objects in the speeches of the Sangh's leaders. The party stood for the re-unification of the motherland through the absorption (or perhaps conquest) of Pakistan. It suspected the Indian Muslims as a problem minority, which had "not yet learnt to own this land and its culture and treat them as their first love". The Congress party was accused of "appeasing" these uncertainly patriotic Muslims.

S.P. Mukherjee had once been a member of the Union Cabinet, as had been B.R. Ambedkar, the great Untouchable lawyer who, as Union Law Minister, had helped draft the Constitution. Ambedkar had resigned from office to revive the Scheduled Caste Federation in time for the elections. In his speeches he sharply attacked the Congress Government for doing little to uplift the lower castes. Freedom had meant no change for these peoples: it was "the same old tyranny, the same old oppression, the same old discrimination... " After freedom had been won, said Ambedkar, the Congress had degenerated into a dharmasala or resting-home, without any unity of purpose of principles, and "open to all, fools and knaves, friends and foes, communalists and secularists, reformers and orthodox and capitalists and anti-capitalists".

Still further to the left was the Communist Party of India. In 1948, many activists of the CPI had gone underground, to lead a peasant insurrection that they hoped would fructify into a countywide revolutionary upsurge on the Chinese model. But the police and in some places the army had cracked down hard. So the Communists came overground in time to fight the elections. A temporary amnesty was granted, and the militants put away their arms and went seeking votes. This abrupt change of roles produced dilemmas no text by Marx or Lenin could help resolve. Thus a woman Communist standing for a seat in Bengal was not sure whether to wear crumpled saris, which would certify her identity with the poor, or wash and iron them, to better appeal to the middle-class audience. And a Parliamentary candidate in Telengana (where the peasant revolt had been at its most intense) recalled his confusion at being offered a drink by a senior official: he said "yes", and gulped down the offering, only to be hit by a "reeling sensation" in his head as it turned out to be whisky rather than fruit juice.

Adding to the list were regional parties based on affiliations of ethnicity and religion. All had one target: the ruling Congress. Its leader, Jawaharlal Nehru, had just successfully come through a challenge to this leadership of the party. With the death of Vallabhbhai Patel, he was also primus inter pares within the Government. But problems he faced aplenty. These included angry refugees from east and west Pakistan, not yet settled in their new homes. The Andhras in the South and the Sikhs in the North were getting restive. The Kashmir question was, in the eyes of the world, still unresolved. And independence had not as yet made any dent in the problems of poverty and inequality: a state of affairs for which, naturally, the ruling party was likely to be held responsible.

One way of telling the story of the election campaign is through newspaper headlines. These make for interesting reading, not least because the issues they flag have remained at the forefront of Indian elections ever since. "Ministers face stiff opposition" read a headline from Uttar Pradesh. "Caste rivalries weaken Bihar Congress" read another. From the north-eastern region came this telling line: "Autonomy demand in Manipur". From Gauhati came this one: "Congress prospects in Assam: Importance of Muslim and tribal vote". Gwalior offered "Discontent among Congressmen: List of nominees creates wider split". A Calcutta headline ran: "W.Bengal Congress Chief booed at meeting" (the hecklers being refugees from the east.) "No hopes of free and fair election", started a story datelined Lucknow: this being the verdict of J. B. Kripalani, who claimed that state officials would rig the polls in favour of the ruling party. And the city of Bombay offered, at three different moments in the campaign, these superbly representative headlines: "Congress banks on Muslim support"; "Congress apathy towards Scheduled Caste: charges reiterated by Dr. Ambedkar"; and "Fourteen hurt in city election clash". But there was also the occasional headline that was of its time but emphatically not of ours — notably the one in The Searchlight of Patna which claimed: "Peaceful voting hoped [for] in Bihar".

FACED with wide ranging opposition from outside, and with some dissidence within his own party, Jawaharlal Nehru took the road: and on occasion, the plane and the train as well. In the course of a nine-week election tour Nehru covered the country from end to end. He travelled 25,000 miles in all: 18,000 by air, 5,200 by car, 1,600 by train, and even 90 by boat.

The Congress campaign, remarked one commentator, "was a one-man affair — Nehru, Nehru and more Nehru. He was chief of staff, field commander, spokesman and foot-soldier at one and the same time". Nehru kicked off his party's campaign with a speech in the border town of Ludhiana on Sunday, September 30, 1951. The choice of venue was significant: as was the thrust of his talk, which declared "an all-out war against communalism". He "condemned the communal bodies which in the name of Hindu and Sikh culture were spreading the virus of communalism as the Muslim League once did... " These "sinister communal elements" would if they came to power "bring ruin and death to the country". He asked his audience of half-a-million to instead "keep the windows of our mind open and let in fresh breeze from all corners of the world".

The sentiment was Gandhi-like, and indeed Nehru's next major speech was delivered in Old Delhi on the afternoon of October 2, the Mahatma's anniversary. To a mammoth crowd he spoke in Hindustani about the Government's determination to abolish both untouchability and landlordism. Once more, he identified communalists as the chief enemies, who "will be shown no quarter", and "overpowered with all our strength". His 95 minute speech was punctuated with loud cheers, not least when he made this ringing declaration: "If any person raises his hand to strike down another on the ground of religion, I shall fight him till the last breath of my life, both at the head of the Government and from outside."

Wherever he went Nehru spoke out strongly against communalism: so much so that some observers felt that he was thereby giving the fledgling Jan Sangh too much prominence. To be sure, he touched on other themes too. In Bihar he deplored the "monster of casteism" which had not even left Gandhi's Congress untouched. In Bombay he reminded his audience that a vote for Congress was also a vote for it, and his, foreign policy of peace and principled neutralism. In Bharatpur and Bilaspur he deplored the impatience of his left-wing critics, whose ends he shared if not their means: as he put it, "we can build the edifice of Socialism brick by brick only". In Ambala he asked the women to cast off their purdahs and "come forward to build the country". In Kerala and in some other places he expressed his admiration for the best among his opposition: for Ambedkar, Kripalani, John Matthai and Jayaprakash Narayan, men who had once been his colleagues in the party or in government. "We want a number of [such] men with ability and integrity," he said: "They are welcome. But all of them are pulling in different directions and doing nothing in the end." Wherever he went, he asked the children to join him in singing the national anthem. His message was patriotic rather than narrowly partisan: for when the crowd shouted `Pandit Nehru zindabad" or "Congress zindabad", he asked them to instead say "Jai Hind" or "Naya Hindustan Zindabad".

In the course of his campaign Nehru "travelled more than he slept and talked more than he travelled". He addressed 300 mass meetings and myriad wayside ones. He spoke to about 20 million people directly, while an equal number merely had his darshan, eagerly flanking the roads to see him as his car whizzed past. Those who heard and saw him included miners, peasants, pastoralists, factory workers and agricultural labourers. Women of all classes turned out in numbers for his meetings. Sometimes there was a sprinkling of hostiles among the crowd. At a halt on the Agra-Bharatpur road, about 15 socialists raised anti-Congress slogans. In parts of North India Jan Sangh supporters shouted out at Nehru's rallies that he was not to be trusted as he ate beef. And the journalist Frank Moraes reports this crisp exchange that followed Nehru coming across, probably in Kerala, a group of Communists waving the hammer-and-sickle. "Why don't you go and live in the country whose flag you are carrying?" he demanded. "Why don't you go to New York and live with the Wall Street imperialists?" they shot back.


Symbols of various parties during the 1952 elections.

But for the most part the people who came to hear Nehru were sympathetic, and often adulatory. This summation by a Congress booklet exaggerates, but not by very much:

Almost at every place, city, town, village or wayside halt, people had waited overnight to welcome the nation's leader. Schools and shops closed: milkmaids and cowherds had taken a holiday; the kisan and his helpmate took a temporary respite from their dawn-to-dusk programme of hard work in field and home. In Nehru's name, stocks of soda and lemonade sold out; even water became scarce... Special trains were run from out-of-the-way places to carry people to Nehru's meetings, enthusiasts travelling not only on foot-boards but also on top of carriages. Scores of people fainted in milling crowds.

THE independent press provided specific instances of the popular mood. When Nehru spoke in Bombay, a procession, mainly of Muslims, marched to Chowpatty to the accompaniment of pipes and cymbals. It was headed by a pair of bullocks and a plough (the Congress symbol). Everywhere, crowds started collecting from early morning for talks scheduled for the afternoon: almost everywhere, barricades were broken in "the enthusiasm to catch a glimpse of Mr. Nehru". After he finished his speech in Delhi, Nehru was met as he came off the dais by a famous wrestler, Massu Pahalwan, who offered him a gold chain and remarked: "This is only a token. I am prepared to give my life for you and the country." The media was much taken with a Telugu-speaking woman who went to listen to Nehru speak in the railway town of Kharagpur. As the Prime Minister lectured on she was consumed by labour pains. Immediately, a group of fellow Andhras made a ring around her: the baby was safely delivered, no doubt while the midwives had an ear cocked to hear what their hero was saying.

As an exercise in social organisation, and as a display of sheer political exuberance, the Indian elections of 1952 had no precedent in the history of the world. We have paid tribute to the organisers and heard the voices of the politicians. In the next part of the essay, we shall hear the voices of the ordinary Indian, the voter in whose hands had been placed the future of the land.

Ramachandra Guha's books include Savaging the Civilized and Environmentalism: A Global History. His social history of cricket in South Asia, A Corner of a Foreign Field, will be published by Picador in June.

(To be continued)

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