RAMACHANDRA GUHA, The Hindu , March 3, 2007
The importance of the year 1957 in Indian history has barely been appreciated.
TWO dates most Indians at least vaguely recognise the significance of are 1757 and 1857. In the first of those years the British won a battle at Plassey that proved a crucial turning point in their eventual emergence as the rulers of the sub-continent. In the second of those years the British won, but very nearly lost, a battle against a band of motivated rebels who hoped to restore, to the throne of Delhi, the dynasty of rulers who had been there before.
Those dates, 1757 and 1857, are well known and widely memorialised. This column, however, is about the year 1957, whose importance in Indian history has barely been appreciated. For, it was exactly 50 years ago as I write that the Republic of India held its second General Elections, thus to more reliably join the ranks of the democracies of the world.
A big gamble
When India held its first General Elections in 1952, a well-known Madras editor of the day, C.R. Srinivasan, called it "the biggest gamble in history". Other Indian writers were even more sceptical. The journal of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh, Organizer, wrote that Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru "would live to confess the failure of universal adult franchise in India". The RSS was echoed by a British member of the Indian Civil Service, who claimed that "a future and more enlightened age will view with astonishment the absurd farce of recording the votes of millions of illiterate people".
In Western democracies, the franchise had been extended slowly, and in stages. First, only men of property had the vote; then, men of education were added to the rolls. In Britain, for example, it took years of struggle and sacrifice (described in the late Paul Foot's book, The Vote) for all men to be granted the right to participate in elections. The women had to struggle even harder, and wait longer. Even in a supposedly advanced country like Switzerland, women were granted the vote only in 1971.
In India, on the other hand, the leaders of the national movement had resolved to hold elections on the basis of universal adult franchise after the country was freed of colonial rule. Our first elections were held in 1952, with Parliamentary polls being combined with polls to the different State Assemblies. In 2002, I wrote a piece in these pages marking the 50th anniversary of that great gamble.
The elections of 1952 were a landmark; so, too, were the elections of 1957. Other countries in Asia and Africa had also held elections after gaining independence from colonial rule. However, in most cases, rule by elected politicians had quickly given way to rule by men in uniform or by dictators of the Left or Right. When a country so large, so poor, so diverse and so disparate as India held a General Election, not many thought it would ever hold another. But when a second poll was successfully held five years later, even the most hard-boiled cynic had to concede that democracy appeared to have come to stay.
Having established the wider significance of the year 1957 in Indian history, let me leave you with some vignettes of the election itself. One reason the polls of 1957 were special was that they threw up the first serious challenge to the hegemony of the Congress Party. This came through the victory in the Kerala Assembly of the Communist Party of India. That the CPI came to power via the ballot box was an event unprecedented in the history of India, and also in the history of Communism, where the achievement of political supremacy had generally left a trail of blood in its wake.
A second reason the elections of 1957 were special was that they saw the Prime Minister's daughter assume an active political role. Till then a social recluse, known only as her father's hostess, in these elections Indira Gandhi campaigned with energy and zest. As Nehru proudly wrote to his sister, Indira "worked with effect all over India, but her special field was Allahabad City and District which she organised like a general preparing for battle".
Example to emulate
A third reason the elections of 1957 were special was that they involved little violence and less corruption. The Chief Election Commissioner was the same as in 1952, Sukumar Sen, a man of great intelligence and integrity. After those first polls, Sen had locked away the ballot boxes; numbering three-and-a-half million, they were now taken out again, used along with a fresh set of half-a-million boxes needed to accommodate the growth in the electorate. Other artefacts were also reused and recycled; in the end, the second General Elections cost a full 45 million rupees less than the first one. A final reason, then, to remember 1957; as a year that gave us this splendid illustration of prudence in public life.