The Travails of India’s first election commissioner

08 April, 2014

India’s first general election was, among other things, an act of faith. A newly independent country chose to move straight into 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. 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. It is a pity we know so little about Sukumar Sen. He left no memoirs and few 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 (ICS) in 1921 and served in various districts and as a judge before being appointed chief secretary of West Bengal, 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. For 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 twenty-one or more, of whom about 85 percent could not read or write. Each one had to be identified, named and registered. The 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, sites for polling stations had to be identified, and honest and efficient polling officers recruited. Moreover, concurrent with the general election would be elections to the state assemblies. Working with Sukumar Sen in this regard were election commissioners of different provinces, also usually ICS men.

The polls were finally scheduled for the first months of 1952, although some outlying districts would vote earlier. 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. 224,000 polling booths were constructed, and equipped with 2 million steel ballot boxes, to make which 8,200 tons of steel were consumed; 16,500 clerks were appointed on six-month contracts to type and collate the electoral rolls by constituency; about 380,000 reams of paper were used for printing the rolls; 56,000 presiding officers were chosen to supervise the voting, these aided by another 280,000 helpers; 224,000 policemen were put on duty to guard against violence and intimidation.

The election and the electorate were spread 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 Indian Ocean, naval vessels were 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 might help the prejudice vanish before the next elections, by which time the women could be reinstated under their own names.

Where in Western democracies most voters could recognize the parties by name, here pictorial symbols were used to make their task easier. Drawn from daily life, these symbols were easily recognizable: a pair of bullocks for one party, a hut for a second, an elephant for a third, an earthenware lamp for a fourth. A second innovation was the use of multiple ballot boxes. On a single ballot, the (mostly illiterate) 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 voter’s finger, stayed there for a week. A total of 389,816 phials of this ink were used in the election.

Throughout 1951 the Election Commission used the media of film and radio to educate the public about the novel exercise in democracy. A documentary on the franchise and its functions, and the duties of the electorate, was shown in more than 3,000 cinemas. Many more Indians were reached via All-India Radio, which broadcast numerous programmes on the constitution, the purpose of adult franchise, the preparation of electoral rolls and the process of voting.

An extract from India after Gandhi by Ramachandra Guha (Ecco/HarperCollins, 2007). 898 pages, Rs 699. Reproduced with the author's permission.

Ramachandra Guha books include India After Gandhi and An Anthropologist Among the Marxists and Other Essays. He lives in Bengaluru.