Sunday, April 05, 2009

Looking back: India's first General Election - Excerpts from Ramachandra Guha's India After Gandhi

India holds its general elections this month. This is, on paper at least, the largest exercise of democracy in the world. However bizarre democracy and politics in India might be – incredibly fragmented and rife with opportunistic alliances: the economist and blogger Atanu Dey calls it Cargo Cult Democracy, democracy of the cosmetic kind – whatever the shortcomings, you cannot but marvel at the scale and logistics of the election itself. More than 700 million people will have the ability to vote this time. The election will be held in staggered fashion, in five phases – beginning April 16th and ending May 13, with results announced on May 16th. There will be 828,804 polling centers; and as in 2004, the election will be conducted using electronic voting machines – there are 1,368,430 of them across the country.

The Indian general election interests me precisely because of these operational aspects. My doctoral training in an area called operations research, which can be described as the science (or mathematics) of planning well. Needless to say, a general election involving huge numbers of people and parties and covering a vast area requires some very careful planning.

Behind all this is the Election Commission of India (ECI), a remarkably efficient organization – surprising, because it is a governmental administrative organization. ECI was formed in 1950, and set its high standards at the very outset. The first Chief Election Commissioner was Sukumar Sen, who had the unenviable task of conducting India’s first general election in 1951. Born in 1899, Sen was educated in Presidency College and London University, where he won a gold medal in mathematics. And mathematics is a useful skill to have when you have to get the numbers and the coordination right for an election and an electorate spread over the area of a million square miles.

In 1951, India had a population of roughly 360 million. The size of the electorate was about 176 million. The 2009 general election will be a larger operation, but the first election, in 1951-52 (it was staggered then too), was quite the leap in the dark. The country had been independent for just four years and a significant portion of the electorate was illiterate. A successful election meant that an effort of that scale could be confidently mounted again and again over the next decades -- what was daunting then is now a routine business.

Here are some excerpts from Ramachandra Guha’s India After Gandhi about the election of 1951.

1. India’s first election, Guha writes,
was, among other things, an act of faith. A newly independent country chose to move straight to universal adult suffrage, rather than – as had been the case in the West – at first reserve the right to vote to men of property, with the working class and women excluded from the franchise until much later.
2. Numbers from the 1951 election:
224,000 polling booths were constructed, and equipped with 2 million steel ballot boxes, to make which 8,200 tonnes of steel were consumed; 16,500 clerks were appointed on a six-month contracts to type and collate the electoral rolls by constituency; about 380,000 reams of paper were used for printing the rolls; 56,000 presiding officers were chosen to supervise the voting, these aided by another 280,000 helpers; 224,000 policemen were put on duty to guard against violence and intimidation.
3. Geography complicated election logistics, but here’s a peculiar social challenge ECI faced that is also somewhat comical:
A second problem was social rather than geographical: the diffidence of many women in northern India to give their own names, instead of which they wished to register themselves as A’s mother or B’s wife. Sukumar Sen was outraged with this practice, a ‘curious senseless relic of the past.’, and directed his officials to correct the rolls by inserting the names of the women ‘in place of mere descriptions of such voters.’ Nonetheless, some 2.8 million women had to be struck of the list. The resulting furore over their omission was considered by Sen to be a ‘good thing’, for it would help the prejudice vanish before the next elections…
4. How did ECI improvise to accommodate the largely illiterate electorate? Pictorial symbols and multiple ballot boxes. Details:
Where in Western democracies most voters could recognize the parties by name, here pictorial symbols were used to make their task easier. Drawn from daily life, these symbols were easily recognizable: a pair of bullocks for one party, a hut for a second, an elephant for a third, and an earthenware lamp for a fourth. A second innovation was the use of multiple ballot boxes. On a single ballot, the (mostly illiterate) Indian elector might make a mistake; thus each party had a ballot box with its symbol marked in each polling station, so that voters could simply drop their paper in it. To avoid impersonation, Indian scientists had developed a variety of indelible ink which, applied on the voter’s finger, stayed there for a week. A total of 389,816 phials of ink were used in the election.
5. And, finally, a little anecdote that tells us of the earnestness of many election officials who tried their best to make things tick in remote places:
An American woman photographer on assignment in Himachal Pradesh was deeply impressed by the commitment shown by the election officials. One official had walked for six days to attend the preparatory workshop organized by the district magistrate; another had ridden four days on a mule. They went back to their distant stations with sewn gunny sacks full of ballot boxes, ballots, party symbols and electoral lists. On election day, the photographer chose to watch proceedings at an obscure hill village named Bhuti. Here the polling station was a school-house, which had only one door. Since the rules prescribed a different entry and exit, a window had been converted into a door, with improvised steps on either side to allow the elderly and ailing to hop out after voting.
It's true, isn't it: that it takes small and sincere efforts like these to achieve something larger. Even if that something larger -- democracy -- is only, as BR Ambedkar once said, "a top-dressing on an Indian soil which is essentially undemocratic".


Rambhul said...

Interesting, thanks for sharing.

Krishnan said...

"Democracy -- is only, as BR Ambedkar once said, "a top-dressing on an Indian soil which is essentially undemocratic". Quite true !

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