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.

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