Partition to electoral rolls: Many challenges before a young India
- India’s first general election was produced by a constitutional carapace, territorial togetherness and administrative apparatus, inherited and inscribed by its leadership
It was in October 1951 that the first votes were cast in the first general election of independent India. In the 70 years, with 16 instalments since, this fundamental fact of democracy and its facilitator , the Election Commission , have accumulated much appreciation. In the post-1945 world, India becoming and remaining an electoral democracy is indeed worthy of acknowledgement, given the country’s size. This is even more so when one (a) retraces the tentative timeline to that first election, alongside (b) recalling some of the tensions felt in entering this Ambedkarite ‘life of contradictions…’
Here, one finds India’s first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, as a man in a hurry. In the first six months since Independence and Partition, hemmed in by their ironies and pities, Nehru nevertheless had hoped for an election as early as the winter of 1948-49, pending the then-Constitution-in-making. As events through those two difficult years put paid to that ambitious hope, the Prime Minister re-imagined the election for late-1950-early-1951, while coming up with an idea to refresh the Constituent Assembly that had been doing double duty as a Parliament.
This was that perhaps the provincial assemblies could (re)elect members for this successor Parliament. Nehru’s keenness on this transitional plan found support from his powerful deputy Vallabhbhai Patel, who suggested holding these elections in December 1949-January 1950. It is a measure of those decentralised times that their cabinet colleagues and party chieftains shot down this proposal, as too much trouble. Ironically, the one cabinet colleague, who agreed to having provincial elections, on the old, limited franchise in 1949, was the non-Congressman Syama Prasad Mookerjee.
Otherwise, as the future President Rajendra Prasad noted, on the one hand, not all the princely states or their unions had legislatures and on the other, with colonial-era separate electorates gone, minority communities across provinces would feel that this election was being held so as to remove their representatives, most of whom were independents. Thus stalled, one month after India was declared a republic, a restless Nehru now expected the general election to happen by March 1951. But this was dependent on provincial preparations of electoral rolls etc. even as an election commission was yet to be appointed.
There was also the looming clash with the decennial census, due in 1951, and, with the state apparatus hardly enthused, the statesman knew that the election would be postponed. Soon, the first Chief Election Commissioner Sukumar Sen confirmed that state governments were being rather slow in doing delimitation et al. In turn, some state governments were unimpressed by the work of the commission especially in East Punjab, where the Sikhs complained that it was so allotting the seats for the Scheduled Castes as to adversely affect their numbers.
Then, as food minister KM Munshi asked the Prime Minister in December 1950, what was the point of holding elections at a time of “grave national emergency: to face chaos”? Anyway, a week after the newly-minted Planning Commission released the outline of the first plan to tackle the then-raging financial and food crises, the Election Commission too decided on elections for November-December 1951. Immediately, the states pushed back recalling the country’s physical diversity and showcasing their federal spirit by preferring January-February 1952.
This worried Sen, for if the election went into January 1952, then it would be more difficult to constitute Parliament by March for the budget session. On the other hand, if it was preponed to October 1951, then the present Parliament had to be adjourned by 15 September. Sen also hoped that they would not need to go to spring-summer 1952 because most (northern) states had set their stall against spring-summer 1951, citing harvesting time and hot temperatures! It was thus that the middle-of-November to middle-of-January window got stretched from the last week of October to the last week of February.
With the ‘when’ of the election settled, focus shifted to the ‘how’ of it. Here, the lead was taken by the socialist Jayaprakash Narayan (JP), whose solitary critique puts an exclamation mark on the common reception of Indian elections. Starting from the UP by-elections of 1948, JP consistently aired his comments from “notetantra” to mobocracy, which cast a (lengthening) shadow on the popular enthusiasm for and official fairness of elections. As early as May 1950, he prophesised that “the Election Commissioner would function merely as the secretary of a new department of government…”
When the same UP government proposed to create 143 two-member assembly constituencies, with 90 of these having a seat for the Scheduled Castes and the remaining 53 for Muslims, New Delhi opposed them. Its calculations were in response to JP’s pertinent protest at its favoured first-past-the-post-system of voting and its (increasing) distortions. A related concern was the (mis)use of national symbols during elections at a time when the Congress’ charkha was not enough to distinguish it, the hammer-and-sickle of the Communist Party was yet to be legitimised and the Bharatiya Jana Sangh was yet to be formed.
On the legislative plane was the Hindu Code Bill, which was stuck in the Constituent Assembly/Parliament, leaving law minister BR Ambedkar discouraged about its passage before the election. By February 1951, it was clear that if the latter was to follow in October-November then the Prime Minister had to prefer the Representation of the People Bill, with a sluggish select committee on extension. An unimpressed Prasad, remembering the earlier, unsuccessful attempt to pass it, which had already delayed the elections, wondered whether India would have a general election in 1952.
Next, there were those areas, where nominations instead of elections was the norm. These were in a constitutional no man’s land and, setting the exceptional spaces of Jammu and Kashmir and Nagaland aside, even Hyderabad in 1951 was without representation. In its lieu, it had a nominated quintet of members in the CA/Parliament, who were not allowed any questions. And in June 1951, East Punjab joined them by becoming the first state to have its politicking ministry dismissed under Article 356, for – among other reasons – it was thus easier to conduct the election.
By then, the electoral contest was starting to envelop most conversations, given its universal adult franchise in a uniquely uneven socio-political arena. When, in July 1951, JP complained that the Planning Commission was not “working for the nation [but] for a party” as it had made the draft outline of the first plan available to it before it drew up its electoral manifesto, vice-chairman Gulzarilal Nanda argued in contemporary terms that ”it was important that the biggest political party…should make up its mind”; a (relatable) blurring of the lines in sand between party, government and country.
India’s first general election was produced by a constitutional carapace, territorial togetherness and administrative apparatus, which were inherited and inscribed, by its leadership. Does its inclusions, exclusions and subsequent legacies make its appreciation a case of much done and much undone? If it registered refugees, it also minoritised migrants; if it created citizens, it also curtailed communities. If as the strain goes aisi taisi Democracy today, then was it a set-up of jaise taise Democratic then?
(Rakesh Ankit is a lecturer in History and International Politics at Loughborough University, UK)