The biggest gamble in history
`As I wander about, the past and the present merge into one another and this merger leads me to think of the future ... ,' said Jawaharlal Nehru, describing his nine-week election tour of 1951-52. India, says noted historian RAMACHANDRA GUHA, was soon to observe a new ritual to be performed at five-year intervals voting in a general election. The concluding part of a two-piece article.
JAWAHARLAL NEHRU'S nine week, 25,000 mile election tour of 1951-52, was described by a breathless party functionary as comparable to the "imperial campaigns of Samudragupta, Asoka and Akbar" as well as to the "travel(s) of Fahien and Hieun Tsang". The crowds were moved by Nehru; and he, in turn, was moved by them. His own feelings are best captured in a letter he wrote to one who with both delicacy and truth can be referred to as his closest lady friend. "Wherever I have been," he told Edwina Mountbatten,
<11,3m,0m>Vast multitudes gather at my meetings and I love to compare them, their faces, their dresses, their reactions to me and what I say. Scenes from past history of that very part of India rise up before me and my mind becomes a picture gallery of past events. But, more than the past, the present fills my mind and I try to probe into the minds and hearts of these multitudes. Having long been imprisoned in the Secretariat of Delhi, I rather enjoy these fresh contacts with the Indian people... The effort to explain in simple language our problems and our difficulties, and to reach the minds of these simple folk is both exhausting and exhilarating.
As I wander about, the past and the present merge into one another and this merger leads me to think of the future. Time becomes like a flowing river in continuous motion with events connected with one another.
One place even Nehru didn't get to was the tahsil of Chini in Himachal Pradesh. Here resided the first Indians to cast their vote in a general election, who were a bunch of Buddhists. They voted on the October 25, days before the winter snows shut their valleys from the world. Truth be told, journalists didn't get to meet these Buddhists either, and had to rest content with information supplied by the administration. Thus a reporter in the Hindustan Times explained how the first Indian voters differed from the industrious citizens of a sober Western democracy. The villagers of Chini, he wrote, owed allegiance to the Panchen Lama in Tibet, and were ruled by rituals administered by local priests. These included gorasang, a religious service to celebrate the completion of a new house; kangur zalmo, a ceremonial visit to the Buddhist library at Kanam; menthako, "Where men, women, and children climb hills, dance and sing"; and jothiya chug simig, the interchange of visits between relatives. Now was added a new ritual, to be performed at five-year intervals: voting in a general election.
The rest of India went to the polls in the months of January and February. The highest voting percentage of 80.5 was recorded in the parliamentary constituency of Kottayam, in present-day Kerala; the lowest, of 18.0, in Shahdol in what is now Madhya Pradesh. For the country as a whole, about 60 per cent of registered voters exercised their franchise; this despite the high levels of illiteracy. A scholar from the London School of Economics described how a young woman in Himachal walked several miles with her bent mother to vote: "for a day, at least, she knew she was important". The press picked up for particular mention the exotic participants in this novel exercise in democracy. A Bombay weekly marvelled at the high turn-out in the tribal forest districts of Orissa: Santhals and Mundas coming to the booth with bows and arrows. One booth in the jungle reported more than 70 per cent voting; but evidently Sukumar Sen had got at least some things wrong, for the neighbouring booth was visited only by an elephant and two panthers. The daily papers, meanwhile, highlighted the especially aged: a 110-year-old-man in Madurai who came propped up on either side by a great-grandson; a 95-year-old-woman in Amabala, deaf and hunch-backed, who still turned up to vote. There was also the 90-year-old Muslim in rural Assam, who had to return disappointed as he was told by the presiding officer that "he could not vote for Nehru". This was sad; but there was a kind of half-fulfilled heroism in the story of a Sangli nonagenarian who cast his vote for the Assembly elections, but fell down and died before he could do the same for his chosen candidate for Parliament.
The surprising orderliness of the whole exercise was well captured in the recollections of a polling officer from the Punjab. He spoke of the care with which everything was put in place: the securing of the ballot boxes, the display outside the enclosures and outside the polling compartments of the names and symbols of candidates and of a list of electoral crimes; the presence of a police squad. "It was because of this organisation that the polling was peaceful and quiet. Voters came and stood in a queue. There seemed to be no talking even. It appeared that the people were taking the election as a solemn affair ... As I watched from my post each voter take his turn I felt my chest raised. That was India coming to elect its own government. Who said we were not fit to manage our affairs?"
One place where there was especially brisk polling was Bombay. Delhi was where the rulers lived, but this island metropolis was India's cultural, financial and industrial capital. It was also highly conscious politically. Since the Congress, the Socialists, the Communists and the Scheduled Caste Federation all had strong roots here, the campaigning had been frenetic. This was the scene on the morning of the January 3, the day assigned for the poll: "At 8 a.m. when sirens blared to signalise the commencement of polling, there was evidence everywhere of the previous night's hectic electioneering, and municipal sweepers were still busy cleaning the propaganda literature which littered the streets".
Altogether, 9,00,000 residents of Bombay, or 70 per cent of the city's electorate, exercised their democratic right on the day. The workers came in far greater numbers as compared to the fashionable middle class. Thus, reported the Times of India, "in the industrial areas voters formed long queues long before the polling stations opened, despite the particularly cold and dewy morning. In contrast to this, at the W.I.A.A. Club (in Malabar Hill), which housed two polling stations, it appeared as if people straggled in for a game of tennis or bridge and only incidentally to vote".
The day after Bombay went to the polls it was the turn of the Lushai (now Mizo) hills. With regard to both culture and geography there could not have been a greater contrast. Bombay had a great density of polling stations: 1,349 in all, these spread over as few as 92 square miles. At the other extreme lay this tribal area bordering East Pakistan and Burma: here there were a mere 113 booths spread over more than 8,000 square miles of territory. The people who lived in these hills, said one scribe, "have not known any queues hitherto except those in battle arrays". But they had nonetheless "taken a strong fancy" to the exercise: reaching their booths by walking for days on "perilous tracks through wild jungles, camping at night on the way amid song and community dances around the fire". Thus on the January 4, 92,000 Mizos, who "have through the centuries decided an issue with their arrows and spears, came forward to give their decision for the first time through the medium of the ballot".
In the middle of January, as the voting was getting under way, Amita Malik published an essay on the elections in the New Statesman of London. Ms. Malik was then, as indeed she is now, a journalist of insight and a rare independence of mind. She presented a crisp overview of the strengths and weaknesses of the different parties in the fray, but concluded that it "was an unequal fight. The Congress has merely to remind the villager that it got rid of the British Raj". Its record of struggle and sacrifice, and the great and wide appeal of its leader, would allow the voter to forgive the Congress its indifferent record in office. Ms. Malik looked towards the future with cautious optimism. "With his magnetic personal charm," she wrote, "Nehru will doubtless carry the day; but many will be voting in the hope that after the elections he will really throw out all the crooks, cranks, revivalists and moneyed merchants (within the Congress), who consider a national flag, a national language, jobs for nieces and nephews, important licences and squandering crores on Prohibition more important than food, houses and clothing."
Polling for the general election ended in the last week of February. When the results came in the Congress had won comfortably. The party secured 364 out of 489 seats in Parliament; and 2,247 out of 3,280 seats in the State Assemblies. But, as critics of the Congress were quick to point out, there was a serious discrepancy between the percentage of seats won and the percentage of votes polled. For Parliament, Congress had polled 45 per cent of the vote and won 74.4 per cent of the seats; the corresponding figures for the States being 68.6 per cent and 42.4 per cent. Nonetheless, as many as 28 Congress Ministers had been defeated in the elections. These included such men of influence as Jai Narayan Vyas, in Rajasthan, and Morarji Desai, in Bombay. More striking still was the fact that it was a Communist, Ravi Narayan Reddy he who drank his first glass of whisky during the campaign who won by the largest margin, larger even than Jawaharlal Nehru's.
On the eve of the polls Sukumar Sen suggested they constituted "the biggest experiment in democracy in human history". A veteran Madras editor was less neutral; he complained that "a very large majority (will) exercise votes for the first time: not many know what the vote is, why they should vote, and whom they should vote for; no wonder the whole adventure is rated as the biggest gamble in history". Sharing this scepticism was Penderel Moon, a brilliant scholar of All Souls College, and an ex-I.C.S. man who had chosen to stay on in India. In 1941, Moon had spoken to stay on in India. In 1941, Moon had spoken to the graduating students of Punjab University about the unsuitability of Western style democracy to their social context. Now, 11 years later, he was the Chief Commissioner of the hill State of Manipur, and had willy-nilly to depute election officers and to supervise the polling and the counting. As the people of Manipur went to the polls on January 29, Moon wrote to his father that "a future and more enlightened age will view with astonishment the absurd farce of recording the votes of millions of illiterate people".
There were times when even Nehru had second thoughts about universal franchise. On December 20, 1951, he took a brief leave of absence from the campaign to address a UNESCO symposium in Delhi, its topic "The Concept of Man and the Philosophy of Education in East and West". In his concluding address, Nehru accepted that democracy was the best form of government, or self-government, but still wondered whether
<11,3m,0m>the quality of men who are selected by these modern democratic methods of adult franchise gradually deteroriates because of lack of thinking and the noise of propaganda ... He (the voter) reacts to sound and to the din, he reacts to repetition and he produces either a dictator or a dumb politician who is insensitive. Such a politician can stand all the din in the world and still remain standing on this two feet and, therefore, he gets selected in the end because the others have collapsed because of the din.
This was a rare confession, based no doubt on his recent experiences on the road. A week later, Nehru suggested that it might be better to have direct elections at the lower levels say within the village and district and indirect elections for the highest levels. For, as he put it, "direct election for such a vast number is a complicated problem and the candidates may never come into touch with the electorate and the whole thing becomes distant".
Nehru had an unusual capacity unusual among politicians at any rate to view both sides of the question. He could see the imperfections of the process even while being committed to it. Other observers were more sanguine. The Tribune of Ambala was "struck with the sense of responsibility and political maturity which adult voters have displayed on the whole all over the country", meaningfully adding that "the common <147,1,0>people ... have, however, given a better account of themselves ... than the educated elite". The Times of India held that the polls has "confounded all those sceptics who thought the introduction of adult franchise who too risky an experiment in this country". The Hindustan Times claimed that "there is universal agreement that the Indian people have conducted themselves admirably in the largest experiment in democratic elections in the history of the world ... " By the time the final results were in, and the Congress had emerged as the unchallenged party of rule, the doubts in Nehru's own mind had disappeared. "My respect for the so-called illiterate voter," he said, "has gone up. Whatever doubts I might have had about adult suffrage in India have been removed completely."
The foreign press, on the whole, concurred. True, there were those American papers which worried that since the Communists were now the second largest party in Parliament, "India would soon be lost to the Western world". But there was also the Berkeley scholar who insisted that the polls were a slap in the face for those analysts who "scoffed at the scheme, saying it was certain to result in violence, manipulation of the votes of illiterates, and a general distortion of the concept of representative government".
Most foreign observers of the 1952 elections were exultant rather than alarmist. A British couple, he a former member of the I.C.S., she a reporter for the Manchester Guardian, pointed to the very low level of violence: "only half a dozen heads broken in election disturbances in all India". For the most part, "behaviour was of an orderliness elsewhere found only in English queues. The canvassing, too, was quiet and dignified. Indeed the entire tone of the elections, even on the Communist or Hindu Mahasabha platforms, was reminiscent of Hyde Park on a rainy day".
A visiting Turkish journalist focussed on the content of the election rather than its form. He admired Nehru's decision not to follow other Asian countries in taking "the line of least resistance" by developing "a dictatorship with centralisation of power and intolerance of dissent and criticism". The Prime Minister had "wisely kept away from such temptations". Yet the "main credit," wrote the Turkish writer, "goes to the nation itself; 176,000,000 Indians were left all alone with their conscience in face of the polling box. It was direct and secret voting. They had their choice between theocracy, chauvinism, communal separatism and isolationism on the one side; secularism, national unity, stability, moderation and friendly intercourse with the rest of the world on the other. They showed their maturity in choosing moderation and progress and disapproving of reaction and unrest." So impressed was this observer that he took a delegation of his countrymen to meet Sukumar Sen. The chief election commissioner showed them samples of ballot boxes, ballot papers, and symbols, as well as the plan of a polling station, so that they could work to resume the interrupted progress of democracy in their own country.
In one sense the Turkish journalist is right. There were indeed 176 million heroes; or, to be more precise, 107 million heroes, those among the eligible who actually took the trouble to vote. Still, some heroes were more special than others. Thus, as the respected Lucknow sociologist D. P. Mukerji pointed out, "great credit is due to those who are in charge of this stupendous first experiment in Indian history. Bureaucracy has certainly proved its worth by honestly discharging the duties imposed on it by a honest Prime Minister."
The juxtaposition is important, and also ironical. For there was a time when Nehru had little but scorn for the bureaucracy. As he put it in his autobiography, "few things are more striking today in India than the progressive deterioration, moral and intellectual, of the higher services, more especially the Indian Civil Services. This is most in evidence in the superior officials, but it runs like a thread throughout the services." This was written in 1935, when the objects of his derison had the power to put him and his like in jail. And yet, 15 years later, Nehru was obliged to place the polls in the hands of men he would once have dismissed as imperialist stooges.
In this respect, the 1952 elections were a script jointly authored by historical forces for so long opposed to one another: British colonialism and Indian nationalism. Between them these forces had now given this new nation what can fairly be described as a jump-start to democracy. Since 1952 there have been 12 further general elections, not to speak of countless elections to State Assemblies. None of these polls, it has to be admitted, have much resembled a Hyde Park meeting. There has been violence, intimidation and fraud. But on the whole Indian elections have been more fair than foul. And what is surely the central point they continue to be held. The turn out is in excess of 60 per cent; that is, comfortably in excess of the turn out in most Western democracies. Strikingly, the lower castes and classes tend to vote in greater numbers, proof of the faith of the ordinary Indian in the processes of bourgeois democracy.
To be sure, Indian democracy is flawed and fragmented. It is shot through with corruption: at all levels, and among politicians and civil servants alike. But it is still alive. For this, many individuals and institutions can take the credit. However, any accounting must begin with Jawaharlal Nehru and Sukumar Sen, and with the two institutions whose finest values they embodied, the Indian National Congress and the Indian Civil Service.
The first part of this article appeared in the Sunday Magazine, The Hindu, issue dated January 27, 2002.
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