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Monday, Oct 14, 2019

Elections in 1951-52 and 2019: Not much difference

Despite the passage of time, the increase in the size of the electorate, and the economic and social changes that have taken place in the intervening decades, much of what was observed in 1952 remains relevant to what we are witnessing in 2019

columns Updated: Apr 20, 2019 19:10 IST
One area in which there has been progress rather than regress is in the counting of votes. With electronic voting machines (EVMs) in place, it is no longer so easy to manipulate ballots and ballot boxes
One area in which there has been progress rather than regress is in the counting of votes. With electronic voting machines (EVMs) in place, it is no longer so easy to manipulate ballots and ballot boxes(PTI)
         

I was recently in the archives in New Delhi, where I came across an intriguing report on the first General Elections, held in 1951-52. It was written by Kamalnayan Bajaj, whose father, Jamnalal Bajaj, was a great patriot and philanthropist and a close associate of Mahatma Gandhi’s. Kamalnayan himself was a successful entrepreneur with close ties to the Congress Party. He had been nominated by the Congress to fight a Lok Sabha seat in Sikar, Rajasthan. He lost his election to a candidate from the Ram Rajya Parishad, and afterwards wrote an eight page note for internal circulation within the party. It was entitled “My experience of the General Elections and certain irregularities connected with it in Rajasthan”, and it makes for instructive reading today, some 67 years after it was written.

Kamalnayan Bajaj began his account by highlighting the “rivalry in the Congress Organisation between the two groups headed by Hiralalji on the one side, and Varmaji and Vyasji on the other.” As he wrote, in some exasperation, the leaders of these rival groups within the Congress “demanded personal loyalty from the workers. Loyalty to the Organisation got second place. In consequence of this some of the really good workers were shoved to the background and persons of questionable character without any service to their credit came to the forefront. Mutual bickerings and petty quarrels took most of the time and energy of the leaders. Consequently the Organisation suffered and could not remain as an effective link between the Government and the people. Even the good and beneficial enactments of the Government were to some extent ineffective, inasmuch as the Congress failed to explain to the masses the proper effects of such legislation”.

The Congress in Rajasthan faced a challenge from within, with rival factions led by leaders who worked for personal rather than party interest. And it faced a challenge from without, in particular from the right-wing Ram Rajya Parishad, which was particularly close to, and funded by, the feudal elite of Rajasthan. Thus Kamalnayan Bajaj wrote of what he termed the “misleading and false propaganda carried on” by the Ram Rajya Parishad, whose leaders “openly said that a vote given to the Congress would be tantamount to slaughtering a thousand cows and that a vote to the Ram Raj [Parishad] would bring them Punya of looking after a thousand cows”.

Kamalnayan Bajaj then came to the less-than-legitimate means used to garner votes. Thus he wrote: “Money was freely distributed particularly amongst Brahmins so that they may vote for the Ram Raj. Sweets were also distributed amongst the children for crying Ram Raj slogans. Ram Raj workers had offered money even to Harijans but at some places the latter spurned the offer and said that their votes would go to the Congress.”

In his report, Kamalnayan Bajaj also spoke of the electoral process being contaminated by violence.

“At many booths,” he wrote, “Ram Raj workers with lathis and naked swords in their hands went round openly telling the people to proceed to the booths only if they wanted to vote for the Ram Raj, otherwise they asked them to go back. … [T]he Ram Raj workers threatened the poor and ignorant voters to make it impossible for them to live their normal life. In spite of this, however, the general feeling that Congress was likely to eventually come to power prevailed and this was to some extent responsible for the Congress securing some votes even in areas dominated by the Jagirdars.”

Kamalnayan Bajaj suggested that the police were partial towards the landed elites of Rajasthan. As he put it: “During the election it is my impression that a section of the Police including Officers was indirectly co-operating with the Jagirdar element in creating an atmosphere of threat and panic.” He also alluded to the presence of rigging, writing: “I have strong suspicion that ballot boxes have been tampered with and votes from the Congress and the Kisan Sabha boxes have been manipulated.”

Kamalnayan Bajaj was writing about the first General Elections held in India on the basis of universal adult franchise. The elections now underway are the 17th such exercise. Yet, despite the passage of time, the increase in the size of the electorate, and the economic and social changes that have taken place in the intervening decades, much of what Kamalnayan Bajaj observed in 1952 remains relevant to what we are witnessing in 2019. In several states the Congress Party remains riven with factionalism, with individual leaders seeking to maximise their own personal influence rather than of the party to which they belong. Again, right-wing parties continue to spread false propaganda about the Congress and its leaders, tendentiously portraying them as “anti-Hindu”, although this now take the form of WhatsApp forwards rather than oral rumours. The role of money and money power in elections, meanwhile, has dramatically increased. On the other hand, one area in which there has been progress rather than regress is in the counting of votes. With electronic voting machines (EVMs) in place, it is no longer so easy to manipulate ballots and ballot boxes.

There is an old French saying, which may be translated into English as follows: “The more things change, the more they stay the same.” This is validated by one last remark that I shall quote from Kamalnayan Bajaj’s report of 1952. This reads: “The people in general were very bitter about the corruption prevailing in Government quarters.”

Postscript: For the next General Elections, in 1957, Kamalnayan Bajaj shifted from Sikar to Wardha, and won. He thus himself exemplified another running theme in Indian elections, namely, the search by candidates for a safe seat.

Ramachandra Guha is the author of Gandhi: The Years That Changed The World.

The views expressed are personal

First Published: Apr 20, 2019 19:10 IST

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