A civilisational triumph for a newly independent country

  • Held between October 1951 and February 1952, the first election was a carnival of celebration, a festival of avowal, a rite of anointment by the people of India of the great cast of the theatre of Swaraj
Voters form a queue in front of a polling station in India’s inaugural general election in January 1952 in erstwhile Calcutta. Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images PREMIUM
Voters form a queue in front of a polling station in India’s inaugural general election in January 1952 in erstwhile Calcutta. Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images
Updated on Oct 25, 2021 12:00 PM IST
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That the Indian National Congress should have won 364 of the 489 seats to the first Lok Sabha was natural. It was the party that had led the freedom struggle. And not just dynamically but charismatically. Its leader, Jawaharlal Nehru, was, without question, the man of the moment with lesser but not less-known personalities from the struggle illuminated by their courage and sacrifice, forming his ‘victorious team’. The Congress had to win that election by what is commonly called a ‘landslide’ , forming the first elected government of free India

So, that first election held from October 1951 to February 1952 was a carnival of celebration, a festival of avowal, a rite of anointment by the people of India of the great cast of the theatre of Swaraj.

And so, on the 70th anniversary of that star-spangled event, we must note with pride five principal truths behind that experience:

One, it belied the grey prognostications of India-skeptics in Britain who had said anarchy and chaos awaited India on the departure of the British – a theory that the violence surrounding the Partition of India had seemed, for a morbid while, to have vindicated. This was an inaugural civilisational triumph for independent India.

Two, it demonstrated not just the wisdom but the pragmatism of the Constitution of India in opting for universal adult suffrage, thereby justifying the intuitive faith of India’s political leadership in the electoral discrimination of the average Indian voter, despite her and his literacy-deficit. This was a foundational political triumph for independent India.

Three, it showed that an election as massive as this, spread across a sub continent of varying terrain and climate and conducted over as many as 68 phases, could be held with procedural finesse by the newly set-up, constitutionally empowered independent Election Commission of India headed by Sukumar Sen of the I.C.S, with state governments cooperating, especially in the vital matter of preparing electoral rolls. This was a defining administrative triumph for independent India.

Four, it vindicated India’s rejection of the Two Nation Theory by showing that Hindus and Muslims voted together, as one electoral college, as one political entity, as one republican persona, to choose their legislators without religious fault lines dividing their political actions.

Five, it showed an election that was free and fair, with candidates from the Opposition and independents weighing the same as those from the strongest political organisation in the country, the Indian National Congress. This was an ethical win, under Nehru’s watch, of iconic proportion and epic dimension.

But we must also take note, in all fairness, that non-Congress opposition parties and, very significantly, many independents also contested the first election of 1951-52 with confidence and elan, with 125 of them entering the first Lok Sabha, their shoulders thrust back in self-assurance and heads held high.

Of those voting, 45% voted for Congress and 55% for non-Congress candidates. The majority of those voting therefore did not vote for the Congress, making that election a victory not just for a party – the Congress – but for electoral democracy in India , a much bigger victory.

So, five other truths about that election emerge:

One, voter turnout being less than 50% – 47% to be precise – the Indian electorate was shown to be liable to democratic ennui, a portentous sign which democrats must take note of with concern for the future of our electoral vitality.

Two, the victorious Congress having secured a landslide win but only 45% of the votes cast, the election showed that 55% of the votes cast went to non-Congress candidates, a sign of great political independence which democrats must note with satisfaction for the future of our electoral autonomy.

Three, among who stood in opposition to the Congress were two stalwarts – Acharya Kripalani and Babasaheb Ambedkar. They were defeated in Faizabad (UP) and Bombay North respectively, by inconsequential Congress candidates, a sign of voters choosing parties over personalities, loyalty over reason which democrats must note with great apprehension.

Four, while democrats from the same ideological ‘page’, believing in pluralism, inclusivity, non-violence and democracy were thus locked in tussles for poll victories, others with an agenda that was diametrically opposed to these values, began to plan for a different if distant victory.

Five, Calcutta returned from two segments of its constituent parts, two Mukherjees with these diametrically opposed ideologies in combat – Syama Prasad Mookerjee from the Bharatiya Jana Sangh and Hiren Mukherjee from the Communist Party of India, showing in a ‘trailer’, as it were, the future contestation for the heart and mind of India.

Will the evolving epic of the Republic of India’s destiny see human concord win over sectarian conflict ?

The first elections of 1951-1952 , free, fair and foundational , held under Nehru’s transparent watch and Sukumar Sen’s exemplary process, have made us, unforgettably, a people of the vote.

(Gopalkrishna Gandhi is a former administrator and diplomat who has also served as the governor of West Bengal)

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    Gopalkrishna Gandhi read English Literature at St Stephen’s College, Delhi. A civil servant and diplomat, he was Governor of West Bengal, 2004-2009. He is currently Distinguished Professor of History and Politics at Ashoka University

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Saturday, November 27, 2021