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Mainstream, VOL 62 No 20, May 18, 2024

Essential and Fascinating Facts about Indian Elections | M.R. Narayan Swamy

Friday 17 May 2024, by M R Narayan Swamy



Chambers Book of Indian Election Facts

by Kingshuk Chatterjee and Surbek Biswas

Hachette India
Pages: xii + 563;
Price: Rs 699
PB ISBN : 9789357318389

An estimated 2.8 million of the 80 million potential women voters could not make it to the electoral rolls when India conducted its first general election after independence. The reason? These women, mostly in northern India, wished to register themselves as ‘the mother of someone’ or ‘the wife of someone’.

The country’s first Chief Election Commissioner, Sukumar Sen, refused to bow to this bizarre request. He knew that the plea was the outcome of a social problem wherein women were not used to being called by their own names. Sen made it clear that no one will be registered as voters unless they were did so in their own names.

Indians remember with a lot of respect how TN Seshan brought global respect for the Election Commission after he took charge of the autonomous body. But this book, which has come out in the midst of a touch-and-go battle for a new Lok Sabha, tells us that what Sen achieved at a time when illiteracy was high in the country was nothing short of a revolution.

A whopping 85 per cent of the voters could not read or write when the first parliamentary election took place. Ahead of the event, each voter across the length and breadth of India had to be identified and registered. Given the range and scale of the mammoth task, Sen began from zero. At a time when travelling was not easy, he visited every state to check the preparedness for the elections. Once the gigantic experiment concluded, he went on to conduct the second general election too — in 1957.

This book purports to be a collection of all sorts of facts pertaining to elections in India, the world’s largest democracy, despite its many flaws. It covers a wide time frame, from the embryonic beginning in the second half of the 19th century to present-day India.

Divided into three parts, the first covers the era of Congress dominance of the political landscape until the post-Emergency election in 1977 sent the grand old party packing for the first time from the corridors of power. Then followed the age of political fragmentation which saw multiple governments, including those which lacked majority support in the Lok Sabha. This period ended with the collapse of the second United Front government in 1999. The final phase, extending to now, covers the ascendency of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), first by Atal Bihari Vajpayee and then by Narendra Modi, although this period also saw a Congress government led by Manmohan Singh for 10 years.

The authors show that neither the Congress nor the BJP has so far really dominated all the states at even one time, let alone all the time. In other words, India truly lives in its regions. No amount of electoral data would make sense unless the regional dynamics are also studied to make sense of why the ballot was cast in the manner in which it was. For this, the book introduces a degree of analysis at a subcutaneous level in a bid to contextualize developments in the component regions of the country.

Besides massive volumes of sheer statistics, which researchers, journalists, election experts and students of politics will find immensely useful, the book abounds in many things interesting.

There was a time when multiple ballot boxes were used in every polling center – with every political party having a box with its symbol marked so that voters could simply drop their ballot paper in it.

Shyam Saran Negi, a school teacher in Kalpa in Himachal Pradesh, was the first person to cast his vote in the first election in independent India.
Indelible ink was used for the first time in the third general election in 1962 to put a mark on voters’ fingers after they exercise their franchise. A Mysore-based company which made the ink is still supplying it to the Election Commission.

The polling station at Tashigang in Spiti Valley in Himachal Pradesh is not only India’s but the world’s highest polling station – at an altitude of 4,650 meters.

This is a truly informed and eminently useful book. I did see some factual errors but these are impossible to avoid when you produce a volume such as this.

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