As the countdown for another round of general elections in 2019 begins, it is worth remembering a man, who was India’s first chief election commissioner and conducted the first general elections of Independent India in 1951-52. It was Sukumar Sen, an Indian Civil Services (ICS) officer.
Born in 1899, Sen had joined the ICS in 1921, served as a judge before becoming the chief secretary of Bengal during 1947-1950. In March 1950, he was chosen as the first Election Commissioner of independent India.
His biggest challenge in 1951 was to involve women in the mammoth poll exercise of the first general elections on the basis of universal adult franchise. When electoral rolls were getting prepared, Sen and his team discovered that a large number of women voters who were enrolled did not have their own names but by the description of the relationship they bore to their male relations (for example A’s mother, B’s wife or C’s daughter).
This was due to the local customs in many north and central Indian States — of women not disclosing their names to any outsider. Sen quickly sent instructions across the country to enumerators to insist upon inclusion of the proper name of an elector in the electoral rolls. Directions were also issued to the effect that any woman who refused to give her proper name should not be registered as a voter and if she had already been registered without the name, the entry should be deleted.
The unfortunate part of this diktat was that out of a total of nearly 80 million women voters in the country, nearly 2.8 million eventually failed to disclose their proper names and missed the change to cast their vote. Women from Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan were the biggest losers.
On a practical front, house-to-house survey across the length and breadth of the country had to be conducted to register every single voter. Since over 70 per cent of the voters could not read or write, the candidates were to be identified by symbols that were assigned to each major party and independent candidates, painted on the ballot-boxes (this was later changed to symbols on the ballot papers).
The polling process in India
The polling process in India has undergone a spectacular change since the first election when there were as many boxes in every polling booth as there were candidates. Printed papers showing the names of candidates with their parties and symbols were pasted or hand-painted on the boxes and the voter simply put the ballot paper in the box assigned to the candidate of his/her choice.
This practice was also followed in the second General Election in 1957. The marking system on the ballot papers was introduced for the third General Election for the Lok Sabha in 1962. One box for all replaced multiple boxes where a voter, after receiving the ballot paper from the presiding officer of the polling booth, would move to a corner cordoned for the purpose where he would find on a table a stamp with ‘x’ mark and a stamp pad.
After marking the stamp against the name of the candidate of his choice, the voter would put the ballot paper in the box. The practice of using indelible ink on the voter’s finger as a precautionary step to prevent impersonation was introduced from the first General Election in 1952.
In a multi-religious, caste ridden, illiterate and backward society, there was no dearth of those skeptical about the electorates’ ability to respond in a politically mature manner. Western media had described India’s first elections as ‘a leap in the dark,’ ‘fantastic’ and as ‘an act of faith.’
During the British era, the elections of 1937, 1942 and 1946 were held on restrictive franchise on the ground of qualifications based on property, payment of taxes etc. The Indian National Congress, which was fighting for the country’s freedom, has made it clear way back in 1928 that universal adult franchise was the goal that should ultimately be laid down for the country.
A committee headed by Pandit Motilal Nehru, that had formulated the principles of a Constitution for India, had recommended the adoption of adult suffrage, after a careful consideration of the various arguments for and against it.