By Suyash Saxena
Edited by Liz Maria Kuriakose, Associate Editor, The Indian Economist
Two years after independence, the first Election Commission was set up. Nehru expressed his hope that the first elections be held as early as the spring of 1951. Sukumar Sen, a 1921 batch ICS officer was appointed as the first Election Commissioner. The task before Sen was huge. Ramchandra Guha in India after Gandhi writes “Some numbers will help us understand the scale of Sen’s enterprise. At stake were 4500 seats- 500 for Parliament, the rest for assemblies. 224,000 polling booths were constructed, and equipped with 2,000,000 steel ballot boxes to make which 82,000 tonnes of steel was consumed; 16,500 clerks were appointed; 380,000 reams of paper were used for printing the rolls; 56,000 presiding officers chosen aided by another 280,000 helpers and 224,000 policemen were put on duty. Size of the electorate was 176 million Indians aging 21 or more of whom 85% were illiterate.” On the eve of polls, Sen noted that it was ‘the biggest experiment in democracy in human history.’
It has been more than six decades since then and what began as an experiment has become an established practice. It’s an astonishing feat that India has been able to sustain its democratic structure and conduct regular electoral exercises. However, underneath these smooth electoral exercises goes months of planning, mammoth arrangements requiring threadbare analyses factoring in the most intricate details at the grassroots level along with the preparedness for the unforeseen despite every single plan. It’s not enough to merely make the bare arrangements for polling as the figures cited by Guha reflect. Conducting a free, fair and peaceful election requires a lot more. My interaction with various senior officers and bureaucrats involved in the present general elections made me aware of the magnitude of the task that is being accomplished.
As Modi prepared to address his rally in the communally sensitive Ayodhya, the situation behind the scenes was tense. Intricate arrangements were put in place for that 15 minute address. Given the communal history of the place with recent incidences of violence, any mention of Ram Mandir could have flared up disharmony, disrupting the atmosphere congenial for the polls coming up in next two days. Several units force was mobilized, policemen deployed at sensitive areas to keep vigil, the local leaders, gundas and anti-social elements were closely monitored for any activity or event that could potentially antagonize the situation. The picture of Lord Rama in the backdrop of Modi’s stage was a great concern. It couldn’t have been removed without provoking the party workers nor could it be neglected without risking communal incidences. All that could be done was to increase the level of preparedness to maintain an atmosphere congenial for the coming polls.
At an instance in the district Faizabad of U.P, there happened to be three rallies organized by three different political parties separated by gaps of just a few minutes. The situation was potentially volatile. Immaculate precision was needed to circulate the crowd in a way that any contact of differing party’s workers should not flare up clashes and skirmishes.
In the district of Muzaffarnagar, which has been a witness to the recent communal clashes, followed by the political antagonism being piled on since then, conducting peaceful polls was again an uphill task. Special arrangements were made to carry thousands of riot victims safely to the polling booths without erupting communal incidences in the middle.
Several impediments block The Election Commission’s vision of offering a“level playing field to all political players”; muscle power combined with money power being the greatest. In places like Bundelkhand, concerted efforts were needed to keep the local mafias at bay. Any relaxation or lapses on the part of the district administration would have led to incidences of booth capturing and intimidating the voters.
Caste and gender issues also needed to be factored in. The electorate was to be sufficiently sheltered from dominant groups and local strongmen to ensure dispassionate and fearless electoral choices.
If the ‘biggest experiment in democracy’ is successful today and the “biggest gamble in history” bears us fruits it is not without tireless efforts of hundreds of men behind the scenes and months of immaculate planning underneath smooth electioneering in India.