1952: Of booths, Ballots and a sense of belonging | India News


‘A test for all of us’ is how Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru described the first general elections in India, in his radio broadcast on Nov 22, 1951, 8.30pm. “This is our first election on an adult franchise. The standard we set now will act as a precedent and govern future elections.”
In Madras, the elections were spread over Jan 1952, and ahead of the polls, instructions to the public on how to cast their votes and the purpose of adult franchise were aired through All India Radio and documentaries in cinema halls, while magazines published articles on how assembly and parliamentary constituencies are structured.
So, what was it like then?

In those days, as only about 20% of the population was literate, polling booths had a row of ballot boxes with symbols, says former journalist K Vishwanathan. “The ballot paper merely had to be dropped into the box that had the symbol of the candidate being voted for. But confusion ensued since it was the first election, and some ballot papers were found placed on top of the boxes instead. Fraudulence was rampant, and interested parties would collect these and drop them in their own candidate’s box,” says the 92-year-old.

Counting, he says, took several days and people got to know the results only through newspapers. Not many people lived to old age, so there was no question of postal votes.
“ Women from Thanjavur-Trichy belt were progressive and made sure they cast their vote. They had been active during the freedom movement as well.”
It was the first election in which anyone could be a candidate and that gave a lot of confidence to the common man and the working classes, says R Raman, principal of Presidency College in Chennai. “Until then local landlords held power and were the presidents of panchayats. The 1952 election was thus a kind of celebration for the masses; they felt the country belonged to them, for the fir st time. It brought people together. Meetings were held all night, till 4am and 5am, often on the beaches of Chennai, as there were no restrictions on the timings.”

As quoted in the Madras Information magazine (editions 1951-1952), the rules of campaigning were that anyone who held a public meeting or canvassed on polling day within 100 yards of a polling station even in a private place, or exhibited signs could be arrested without warrant and fined up to ₹250 (more than ₹20,000 today).
Any person who tampered with a ballot box would also lose the right to vote in future elections.

Party candidates who were qualified to fill reserved seats were distinguished by a black circle around the party symbol. Independent candidates had to specify in their order of preference, any three symbols out of only six options — bow and arrow, boat, flower, pitcher, camel and a twig with two leaves, left after allotment to the All-India parties and state political parties, says T S Krishnamurthy, former chief election commissioner.

Many women in northern India did not register in their own names, and instead registered as ‘A’s mother’ or ‘B’s wife’ and some 2.8 million women voters were struck off the list, writes Ramachandra Guha in his book ‘India after Gandhi’. The then chief election commissioner of India, Sukumar Sen, considered the furore over their omission as something good, as it would motivate women to give their own names for the next elections.

In his address to the public prior to the 1952 election, chief electoral officer of Madras S Venkateswaran appealed to women to not let their “shyness stand between them and the polling booth”. “Our elections would be unsatisfactory unless our women, who constitute half our electorate, exercise their rights as voters with as much keenness and intelligent appreciation as men voters. Shrewd common sense is good enough equipment for a voter and our women have that in abundance,” he said.
He also announced that booths with “appreciable number of gosha women voters (who follow Islamic traditions strictly) will be manned entirely by women staff” and only women voters will be allowed to vote there.
1952 | 51.5% of the country voted (8.9 crore voted out of 17.3 crore). There were over 2.7 crore voters in Madras State which included parts of modern-day Kerala, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh 1957 | only 47.57% voted (9.2 crore out of 19.3 crore)

1962 | Polling period was reduced to less than a week from the initial 19 days. The number of polling booths were increased to 2.5 lakh, one for 900 voters. No one had to travel more than one mile to vote. Also, a new system of voting was introduced where the choice of candidate was indicated on the ballot paper itself. Until then, each candidate had a different ballot box.


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