When 20 lakh women could not vote

The article appeared in my Election blog ‘SecretBallot’ in Deccan Herald

http://www.deccanherald.com/election/blog/392643/when-20-lakh-women-could.html

Just for Sukumar Sen, an ICS officer who rose to become country’s first Chief Election Commissioner, over 20 lakh women could not vote in the first General elections as their names were struck out from the electoral rolls. This may sound outrageous at a time when Election Commission is doing everything possible to draw people out of their cosiness in homes to the voting booths on polling days.

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(Sukumar Sen)

But Sen, a no-nonsense officer who resisted Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s haste in conducting the elections as early as possible, had a reason to do so. To his surprise, he found many names in the poll roll like wife of ‘A’, daughter of ‘B’ or mother of ‘C’. Sen was not the one to accept this. He asked his officers to get the names in the rolls but still then at least 20 lakh women refused and were out of the rolls. At the end, India had 17.32 crore voters in its rolls, out of which 85 per cent were illiterate.

Sen was the lone Election Commissioner and he conducted the first two General elections. For the elections, he used All India Radio and cinema halls to persuade people to vote. A documentary ‘This is Your Vote’ was screened in around 70,000 cinema halls across the country during the 1957 General elections.

According to historian Ramachandra Guha, two million steel ballot boxes were used in 2.24 lakh polling booths the first General elections. For the making of these boxes, 8,200 tonnes of steel was required. Around 16,500 clerks were appointed on six-month contracts for typing and collating the electoral rolls. About 3.80 lakh reams of paper were used for printing the rolls.

The first election spanned over four months. The first to go to poll was Chini tehsil in Himachal Pradesh on October 25, 1951 and the whole process ended in next February only. However, the 1957 polls ended in 18 days.

The story of elections in India started with the formal setting up of Election Commission on January 25, 1950, a day before the country became a republic. However, Sen was appointed on March 21, 1950. The ball was set rolling for future elections in the country on May 12, 1950 and August 17, 1951 when Parliament passed laws in this regard.

The first Presidential election was held after the constitution of Parliament and state Assemblies and Rajendra Prasad assumed the office on May 13, 1952 after the elections. After the General elections, the Commission recognised 14 parties as multi-state parties and 59 state parties. At present, there are six national parties.

The first two elections were different from all other elections in the country. The Election Commission adopted the ‘balloting’ system of voting in which, every candidate was allotted a separate ballot box and the voter was required only to drop the ballot paper into the box of the candidate of his choice.

But it changed from the third elections in 1962 when the Commission switched over to ‘ marking system’. Under this system, a common ballot paper containing the names and election symbols of all contesting candidates is printed on which the voter has to put a mark with an arrow cross mark rubber stamp on or near the symbol of his candidate of his choice. All the marked ballot papers are put into a common ballot box.

The experiment with Electronic Voting Machines (EVMs) started with the Assembly elections in Kerala in 1982 when parts of Parur constituency witnessed its use on an experimental basis. The 1998 Lok Sabha polls saw the extensive use but it took two more elections to see the demise of ballot paper. In the 2004 elections, the EVMs were used in all polling stations.

The first general election had witnessed 1,874 candidates for 489 seats but it rose to 8,070 in 2004 out of which a dismal 556 were women. Similarly, the electorate was 17.32 crore in 1952 while it rose to 71.69 crore in 2009.

TAILPIECE: CPI(M) leader Basudeb Acharia may create history in the coming elections if he wins the Lok Sabha. He would be the senior most MP winning all Lok Sabha elections from 1980 with an experience of 34 years in the Lower House of Parliament.

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