on the World Today
FOR administrative and climatic reasons, polling in India s first general elections was staggered over the four winter months. Between mid-November and the end of February, the people streamed into the polls in the biggest and most amazing elections the world has ever seen. They came from Himalayan villages high in the north, from the remote hills and orange groves and tea estates of Assam, from the crowded factories and dock areas of Hornbay and Calcutta, from tiny clearings deep within the tiger-infested forests and jungles of Orissa, from walled settlements and ancient fortress towns sparsely dotting the Rajasthan desert, from the palm-fringed coastal lands of Madras and Travancore-Cochin.
Tribal folk, scantily clad, queued up with spears and bows and arrows, their women with them. Hill women put on their gayest clothes and heavy silver jewelry for the occasion. Blind people in some cities formed into pathetic strings, eager to exercise this new thing called a vote. Bridegrooms and their marriage parties, decorative umbrellas and all, stopped off to vote on the way to their weddings. Even dying persons, here and there, insisted on being carried to the polling booths, cast their votes, and died in peace. At least two women gave birth to children within minutes of voting.
The voting was actually heavier in rural areas than in cities, and the women outnumbered the men at many places. Occasionally — in Jaipur, for instance— a handful of ballot boxes were collected empty at the end of the day; but to offset such rare indifference, there were villages in Saurashtra where the voting was 100 per cent. In Delhi, the capital, the percentage worked out at 53. In the state of Travancore-Cochin, with a literacy figure of over 50 per cent (the highest in India), no less than 7!) per cent of those entitled to vote did so.
For the whole of India, out of an electorate of 186 million men and women, about equal to one twelfth of all humanity, between 50 and 60 per cent of the people went to the polls. An act of faith had justified itself. A great experiment in political democracy had passed out of the blueprint stage and gone into production.
On the basis of simple adult franchise and direct ballot, the people of India returned 8772 members to the various legislatures (489 to the Lower House of Parliament, known as the House of the People, and 3283 to twenty-two State Legislative Assemblies). Other elect ions, partly indirect, through the Assemblies, and partly on a franchise limited to graduates, teachers, and local bodies, decided the Upper Houses, or Legislative Councils, in seven of the larger states. The new Assemblies also elected the allotted number of members for each state to the Upper House of Parliament, or Council of States. Then all elected members of both Houses of Parliament, and all State Assemblies elected the President of India, and in May India’s first democratic government assumed office.
Getting India ready to vote
Considering the political set up of India since independence, the holding of eleclions posed peculiarly difficult problems on the administrative side. There is wide disparity in size, population, historical evolution, political consciousness, and experience among the twenty-five states, but the new Constitution decreed that in free, democratic, secular Republican India, all alike should share the privileges and responsibilities of citizenship. Thus, when announcement was first made, in July, 1951, of forthcoming general elections, the whole country had to be organized for them, with less than six months in which to get ready.
Mammoth electoral rolls were corrected and published. More than 3000 constituencies were demarcated, calculated on a basis of 500,000 to 750,000 persons per seat for the House of the People and 80,000 to 75,000 persons per seat for State Assemblies. Within every constituency, provision had to be made for reservation of seats for Scheduled Castes and Tribes, where population warranted. written into the Constitution is a ten-year guaranty of Reserved Seats for this most backward element of the population.
Another item was the manufacture of 2,584,010 steel ballot boxes of approved design. They had to be distributed along with 600 million ballot papers and other election paraphernalia to a quarter of a million polling booths. Training of election stall’ and posting of police constables or guards to every polling center in the country was another huge adminislrative responsibility.
The main problem facing the Election Commission, however, was what to do with the illiterate Indian voter. Eighty-two per cent of India’s 361 millions are still unable to read or write, and thirteen different languages are spoken. The difficulty was solved by the ingenious system of symbols. It was decided that political party candidates and Independent candidates would all have distinctive symbols. Candidates for the Reserved Seats, who might belong to any party, would have their party symbol curl sed in a circle, as a mark of special identification. Reproduced in black outline on small squares of white paper, the various symbols would be pasted outside and inside the appropriate ballot boxes everywhere in the country.
Complicated as it may sound, the symbol system worked. All that voters had to do on polling day was to obtain their identity slips and ballot papers from the officials in charge, get their left forefingers marked with indelible ink (to prevent possible impersonation and double voting), walk behind a screen and drop their papers, without even having to mark them, into tho boxes of their choice.
Thousands of candidates
The system would have worked better had it not been for the cataclysmic rise of innumerable parties and the simultaneous eruption of several thousand Independent candidates on the eve of the elections.
Besides the seventy-year-old Indian National Congress Party, to whom the British handed India over when they left, other older parties already in the field were the Socialists, the Forward Bloc, the Communists, and the Hindu Mahasabha. With elections in sight, a movement of disintegration gained rapid headway. Rebel Congressmen, dissatisfied with their party’s policies and critical of its administration, suddenly resigned from the Congress in large numbers.
The Independent candidates were mainly recruited from dissident or dissatisfied Congressmen, and included many whose applications for official Congress nomination hud been rejected. Ex-rulers of princely stales and members of their families supplied another rich contingent. Some fifty rajas and maharajas, with a sprinkling of maharanis and princesses, astonished the country by offering themselves for election.
A few industrialists and journalists and other individuals of influence in their communities who thought they could command a personal following also threw themselves into the fray. Perhaps the most singular among them was bespectacled, long-haired Prabhu Dutt Brahmachari, wearing the traditional garments of an Indian “holy man.” He set himself up for election to the House of the People its one of four rivals opposing Prime Minister Nehru in his own home town of Allahabad. His campaign was somewhat handicapped by the vow of silence he had been observing for ten years, but he managed to distribute 60,000 pamphlets bitterly attacking the Congress, and his agents staged Yedio sacrifices and asked people to lake an oath by sacred Ganges water not to vote for Congress. (He eventually polled 56,718 votes, against 233,571 for Nehru.)
For the first time in their fives, the people were given some sort of education in the political, social, and economic problems confront ing t he country. Endless meetings were held— three thousand in Bombay alone. And the people sat, watched, listened, took everyl king in.
Congress vs. Communists
An analysis of final polling figures makes three things clear. The Congress, often against still opposition, has won, and a continuity of Nehru policies is assured for the next five years. Reactionary parties of the Right have suffered a serious set back. Communists in combination with other Leftist groups have emerged as the second largest political party in India, next only to the Congress.
Congress now has practically a three-fourths majority in Parliament, and it has captured more than two thirds of all the Assembly seats. It is the largest single party in every State Assembly, and it has an absolute majority, overriding the combination of all other parties and Independents put together, in eighteen Assemblies out of twenty-two. In West Bengal and East Punjab, both so-called “problem” states where its position before the elections was uncertain, it has received solid majorities.
But its position is precariously slim in Rajasthan and Hyderabad, and it has failed to get a working majority in four states — Travancore-Cochin, Madras, Orissa, and P.E.P.S.C. (Patiala and East Punjab Slates Union). And when the polling figures for the whole of India are more closely serutinized, the inescapable fact emerges that more people voted against Congress than for it. Congress polled only about 40 per cent of the total votes.
The splitting of votes among the multiple parties and Independent candidates was one reason for the drop in Congress support. Altogether, 17,459 candidates contested the 3862 elected seals.
But there is a more fundamental explanation. The common man in India today is almost totally unaware of what the Nehru government has actually achieved during the past four and a half years. On the other hand, he knows that prices are four or five times higher than they used to be, and that food and cloth and other essentials are in short supply, He finds the controls and procurement policies intolerably irksome, and he knows that there is a flourishing black market.
The success of the Communists and their allies, particularly in South India, gave a rude shock to the Congress camp. In the country as a whole they have won not even one tenth of the seals going to Congress, but in the three southern states of TravancoreCochin, Madras, and Hyderabad they have won nearly half the number won by Congress. Lnsatisfaclory administration and some of the police excesses during a prolonged struggle to suppress Communist lawlessness in Telengana (the Communist stronghold in Hyderabad) and adjacent areas in Madras are said to have alienated many votes from Congress.
A bright promise of increased rice rations, reduction of prices, and scaling down of officials’ high salaries sounded like conv incing arguments in favor of the Communists. Their program contained other gliltering possibilities— nationalizing land and industry (without compensation), confiscating foreign assets, tearing India from the Commonwealth, rescuing her from the octopus embrace of the American “ Imperialists.”
Class against class
For practical purposes, the Communists found other ways of appealing to the electorate. They fanned the resentment of the non-Brahmin majority in the south against the small, powerful Brahmin minority, mostly Congressmen, and they warmly encouraged the popular demand for linguistic states — particularly an Andhra stale for Telugu speakers, long a burning issue. Congress has so far softpedaled this question, insist ing that at least agreement must first be reached with Madras and Hyderabad, out of which Andhra would have to be carved.
The Communist success was all the more significant because the party was banned in both Hyderabad and Travancore-Cochin. In other parts of India it was not banned, but many leading Communists were in jail, convicted of acts of violence and terrorism. Many had gone underground, and hundreds more were held in custody under the Preventive Detention Act. Before the elections, however, in order to create an atmosphere of freedom, the different states released many détenus on parole, and thus enabled them to contest and win many seats.
In the two states where the party could not function freely, a combination of sympathetic Leftist parlies under Communist leadership came into existence with new labels — the United Front of Leftists in Travancore-Cochin, the People’s Democratic Front in Hyderabad. Communists were also put up as Independents.
Nevertheless, post-election efforts to gather in enough supporters to form non-Congress coalition governments in those states where Congress failed to obtain an over-all majority have not succeeded. A strong central government will not allow disorder or separatist tendencies to endanger India’s hard-won freedom. The Congress Party itself is to be reorganized and mass contact re-established. There is certain to be an administrative cleanup, and measures of relief to meet the distress of the people are to be speeded up. India, having won political freedom, is now preparing to light out the war against poverty.