By Roshan Kishore

The formalisation of democracy continued decades after the country gained political independence. If one were to look at the period of the first fifteen years after independence there is an important story to be told via just two sets of numbers: 489/26 and 494/18.

Although independent India held its first general elections in 1951, at least a section of Indians were not voting for the first time in their lives. This was because the British government gave limited democratic representation to Indians before independence. In fact, India’s Constituent Assembly, which debated and ratified the constitution of the new republic, was elected before 15 August 1947.

Does the presence of limited franchise and electoral competition mean that the post-1947 period was insignificant, as far as the foundations of India’s electoral democracy is concerned?

Far from it. In fact, the formalisation of democracy continued decades after the country gained political independence. If one were to look at the period of the first fifteen years after independence there is an important story to be told via just two sets of numbers: 489/26 and 494/18.

When the first general elections took place in 1951, the structure of Indian democracy, and even the nature of political competition was very different from it is today. 489 Lok Sabha MPs were elected after the 1951 general elections. These MPs were elected from across 26 states, some of which were extremely small.

These states were classified into three categories in keeping with the first schedule of the constitution: Part A, Part B and Part C states. Part A had states which were provinces even before independence and had elected state legislatures. Part B and Part C had former princely states, groups of such states or former chief commissioner’s provinces.

By the 1962 general election, while the number of Lok Sabha MPs increased to 494, the number of states came down to just 18 and the categorisation had been done away with. To be sure, the number of states came down to just 17 in the 1957 elections – a result of the 1956 State Reorganisation Act – before increasing to 18 in the 1962 elections.

A reduction in the number of states was not the only change in the nature of political competition between 1951 and 1962. Of the 489 MPs elected in 1951, 172 were elected from double-seat constituencies and three were elected from a triple-seat constituency. The double-seat constituencies elected both a general and a Scheduled Caste (SC) candidate, whereas the triple-seat constituency elected a general, SC and Scheduled Tribe (ST) candidate. While the practice of double-seat and triple-seat constituencies continued in the 1957 elections, it was done away with in 1962.

The real groundwork in giving shape to political competition in India started even before decisions had been made about things such as constituency delimitation for the 1951 elections. Ornit Shani’s book How India Became Democratic which looks at the preparation of the first electoral roll for India offers some interesting insights.The preparation of voter lists, Shani shows, started much before the technical questions of constituency and state boundaries were settled with the understanding that the primary units of voter lists (such as villages) would lend themselves to any kind of clubbing. Shani rightly credits the Constituent Assembly Secretariat (CAS) for accomplishing this fundamental task in building the world’s largest democracy.

1947 - 1962

“The preparation of electoral rolls on the basis of universal franchise for the House of the people became a key instrument in driving the integration with the country as a whole. The production of an Indian electorate out of the people of the provinces and the subjects of 552 princely states and their territories created a de facto constitutional and administrative template for the Indian federation”, Shani writes.