Republic at 70: India’s 1st CEC carried out a ‘great and fateful experiment’, writes Ashok Lavasa
The first Sukumar Sen Memorial Lecture, instituted by the Election Commission of India (ECI) in memory of the first chief election commissioner of the country was delivered on January 23 by former President Pranab Mukherjee.
Sen was a remarkable son of India who transformed the dream of a democracy into an enduring model electoral system that few could have dreamt of at the dawn of freedom.
It is a strange coincidence that the first Sukumar Sen Memorial Lecture was delivered on the birth anniversary of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose. After the lecture, one of his relatives told me that during a voyage to England, Sen tried to impress one of his co-passengers with his knowledge of mathematics. The co-passenger, who wasn’t too impressed, was none other than Bose, who also qualified for the India Civil Services like Sen himself.
Sen, the mathematician civil servant, was also the first vice-chancellor of Burdwan University in 1960 and later administrator of the Dandakaranya Project ( to rehabilitate displaced refugees after Partition) in West Bengal. He was born on January 2, 1899 and passed away on May 13, 1963 even before he attained the current age of retirement of election commissioners.
Today, we marvel at the vision of the framers of our Constitution who reposed faith in “We, the people of India”, a vast and disparate multitude of millions who were knitted together into a Republic by their wisdom and foresight.
While India dared to dream, the world looked at it with anxiety and nervous apprehension. But then there were dedicated men who with their commitment, courage and capability went about the task of institution building that has stood the test of time and become the envy of the world.
Sen, who took over as the first CEC on March 21, 1950 was one such institution builder. He was given the herculean task of conducting the first election in a country that was born after almost a century long struggle for independence. He was chosen to play midwife to deliver Indian democracy’s first crop of nearly 3,000 elected representatives. In his own words, the elections were “like re-joining of a historic thread that had been snapped by alien rule.”
For his labour, Sen was paid a salary of Rs.4,000 per month in which he volunteered a cut of Rs.500.
His contribution in successfully delivering the first election earned him a Padma Bhushan in 1954 and by the time his tenure ended on December 19, 1958, he had earned the eternal gratitude of a nation that was on its way to becoming the most vibrant democracy of modern times.
With the adoption of the principle of Universal Adult Suffrage, India “launched a great and fateful experiment unique in the world in its stupendousness and complexities,” as Sen put it in an extensive report on the first general elections.
Under the Government of India (GoI) Act, 1919, which provided for direct election to 100 out of 140 seats in the central legislature assembly, the all-India average of population enfranchised was a mere 2.8% of the adult population. This went up to about 20% under the GoI Act of 1935. Enrolling Indians as voters before the adoption of the Constitution on January 26, 1950 meant that “Indians were voters before they became citizens” as Ornit Shani observes in her book How India Became Democratic and that according to her, required “an immense power of imagination.”
The total population of India (excluding Jammu & Kashmir) as per Census 1951 was 356,691,760 (356.6 million) and the total voters as per the electoral roll was 173,213,635 (173.2 million), out of which women voters were 45%.
Sen personally visited every state in order to check its preparedness for holding the elections. During these tours, he made it a point to meet representatives of political parties and the press and to take them into the fullest confidence. He attended at least one polling rehearsal almost in every state.
One of the most progressive decisions taken by him was not to enrol women voters till they disclosed their own identities.
Out of 80 million women voters, nearly 2.8 million failed to disclose their names and were deleted. So effective was the effort put that out of the adult population (+ 21 years) of 180,307,684, only 7,034,839 (seven-odd million) adults were left out.
Interestingly, 732 intending or contesting candidates gave applications for including their names in the electoral roll by paying a fee of Rs.50/- along with their nominations. Out of these, 46 applications were rejected and 87 won the elections (70 in legislatives and 17 in Parliament)
The first general election commenced on September 10, 1951 when the first notification was issued U/S 15 & 17 of RPA 1951 for Himachal Pradesh.
Notification U/S 73 containing names of person elected/nominated to the House of People was finally issued on April 2, 1952. The process was eventually concluded on June 4, 1952 when the West Bengal Legislative Council election was completed.
Sen dealt with inexperienced citizens and contended with the lackadaisical approach of political parties in the preparation of electoral rolls. However, they were enthusiastic about contesting elections as a total of 26,120 candidates filed their nomination papers (2,833 for the House of People and 23,287 for state assemblies). After rejections and withdrawals, 17,235 (1,874 for the House of People and 15,631 for state assemblies) were left in the fray.
Interestingly, 88.4% candidates were their own election agents and 4,194 did not appoint any polling agent. Out of 3,187 candidates who appointed persons other than themselves as their election agents, 855 incurred disqualification for membership of legislatures and for voting, on account of their failure to lodge their returns of election expenses within the time and manner required by law. The disqualification of 221 was later removed by ECI as per the Report of ECI on the First Elections published in 1955.
As Shankar’s weekly said on February 17, 1957, Sen had “much more than steel in his frame”. While doing the task that was assigned to him, Sen was acutely conscious that setting up a robust and credible system was as much a part of his responsibility as delivering the election itself. He understood that the integrity of the system and the fairness of procedure was an intrinsic requirement of democracy. It was perhaps more important for him to earn the trust of the people than merely fulfil the immediate expectations of his enthusiastic political masters.
As we pay tribute to the legendary figure, we also acknowledge the contribution of B N Rau, the adviser of the Constituent Assembly Secretariat under whose guidance the preparation of electoral roll was initially managed, the 16,523 clerks who spent over six months in comparing the rolls with delimited constituencies, the two Regional Commissioners MR Meher and TGN Iyer, about 700,000 polling duty personnel and nearly 340,000 policemen who were detailed for polling duties all over the country.
However, the man who played an unassuming and memorable part was Sen, who was described by his daughter Purabi Ward as “a doer, not a talker”. Today, the world talks about him.
(Ashok Lavasa, a 1980-batch retired Indian Administrative Service officer assumed the charge of election commissioner in 2018)
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