India’s First Elections: Finally, the Nation Speaks

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    As far as records go, Shyam Saran Negi’s can never be broken. He has gone down in history as independent India’s first voter. Negi was the first Indian to cast his vote when elections were held for the first time in the country, on 25th October 1951. This historic milestone was set in Chinni (now Kinnaur) in Himachal Pradesh. A teacher by profession, Negi had been assigned polling duty and he told the polling officer that he wished to cast his vote before taking up his assigned duty. The officer agreed and Negi created history.

    Polling was held in phases, with different parts of the country going to the polls at different times over a five-month period. The process culminated on 27th March 1952. This electoral exercise has been repeated many times since, on both the state and central levels, and we tend to take it for granted. But, in 1952, the task was seen as impossible, audacious and unprecedented – and yet an independent India elected her very first government.

    From the very beginning, free India decided to opt for Universal Adult Franchise – which means that everyone above a certain age could vote – and it was the only criterion. This was not the case even in the more progressive West. During the first democratic elections in the United States, women and African-Americans were barred from voting, while Britain disallowed people who did not own property from casting their votes. These countries switched to universal adult franchise only much later.

    Secondly, there were no electoral rolls or even a list of Indians to account for the electorate. Until then, India had been divided into more than 500 princely states, along with British provinces. And while a Census had been conducted every decade since 1881, it only collated numbers and there was no list of voters to work with. It was a daunting task to actually create such a list without hitches.

    In a country where birth dates were not always remembered or recorded, determining who was 21 and older must have been a guesstimate in many instances.

    Still, it was done in time for the election and that itself was a commendable achievement.

    The Unsung Heroes

    The man who had made it possible for Negi and, indeed, for millions of others to cast their vote was Sukumar Sen, independent India’s first Election Commissioner. Historian Ramachandra Guha has described Sen as “the man who had to make the election possible, a man who is an unsung hero of Indian democracy”. Perhaps Sen’s greatest achievement was that he devised the processes that made the first election possible without too many hitches, setting the tone for all the elections that followed.

    British India did see elections in 1937 and 1942, for the provincial and federal legislatures, which allowed Indians a very limited say in administration, as per the provisions of the Government of India Act, 1935. But these elections had been held on the basis of restricted franchise – only property owners and Indians paying income tax were allowed to vote. Therefore, the pool of voters was a small one. The 1946 elections to the Constituent Assembly, which were conducted once the decision to grant India independence was taken, also followed the limited franchise model.

    On the other hand, the first elections in independent India, in 1951-52, were held on the basis of Universal Adult Franchise, with everyone above the age of 21 (the age was lowered to 18 in 1989) eligible to vote. Towards this end, the first step had to be the most basic one – to draw up a list of all eligible voters.

    A door-to-door survey was commissioned and it prepared this mammoth list. There were 16,500 clerks who typed up the electoral rolls, and at the end of this formidable exercise, about 17 crore people (of a total population of 36 crores) were deemed eligible to vote.

    The First Party Symbols

    Then there was the matter of how these voters would indicate their preference of the candidate. In 1951, India’s literacy rate hovered around 18 percent, and so writing the names of candidates on the ballot paper would not work. To assign ‘readers’ to navigate a printed list for voters would have been expensive and would have also compromised the rule of secrecy. So a decision was made to identify candidates and political parties by symbols. A variety of symbols, drawn from everyday Indian life and familiar to the public, were shortlisted and assigned to parties and individuals.

    Interestingly, the symbol of the leading party of the day, the Indian National Congress, was two yoked oxen. The ‘hand’ symbol, which later became synonymous with the Congress party, at the time of the 1951 elections belonged to the Forward Bloc (Ruikar Group), a political formation that no longer exists. Congress began to use the hand symbol only in 1977. In 1969, when the Congress party split, the section supporting Indira Gandhi opted for the symbol of a cow and a calf. In 1977, this was changed to the hand, which is now synonymous with the Congress.

    There were 14 national parties during free India’s first election. Three have survived to the present day – those of the Congress, the Communist Party of India (its election symbol of a sickle and two ears of corn has remained unchanged) and the Revolutionary Socialist Party. Another party, the Jana Sangh, which was allotted the ‘lamp’ symbol, was the forerunner of the Bharatiya Janata Party. The banyan tree, the rising sun and the lion were some of the other symbols allotted to the Socialist Party, the Akhil Bhartiya Ram Rajya Parishad and the All India Forward Bloc (Marxist), respectively.

    The number of candidates who contested the election was 1,874. They were vying for 489 constituencies. Besides the parliamentary elections, elections were also conducted for the state assemblies, and close to 15,000 candidates cast their hats into the fray. Some Lok Sabha constituencies were two-member constituencies, simultaneously electing a general category candidate as well as a Scheduled Caste candidate. One constituency was a three-member constituency, which chose candidates from the general, Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe categories.

    A total of 2,24,000 polling booths were set up, many in remote and inaccessible areas, which necessitated visits by government officials for the first time in living memory. A total of 56,000 presiding officers supervised the conduct of the elections in the polling booths.

    Another unsung hero of the first election was the firm Godrej & Boyce, which was tasked with manufacturing ballot boxes. There was a requirement of 12 lakh boxes for both the parliamentary and state assembly elections. During this first election, each candidate had a separate box with his or her symbol pasted on it. The voter would then insert the ballot paper into the box of his chosen candidate. Hence, the requirement for boxes was huge.

    The ballot box had to be sturdy, tamper-proof and cost-effective. India was then strapped for the foreign exchange needed to purchase the steel to make these ballot boxes. But, the genius of Nathalal Panchal, a shop-floor worker at Godrej, came to the rescue. He designed a ballot box that met all these criteria. Godrej began producing these boxes in July 1951. Working in three shifts, the workers manufactured 15,000 ballot boxes a day, on some occasions clocking as many as 22,000 boxes per day!

    The ballot boxes were transported to remote corners of the 23 states in India, from the Vikhroli railway station that was situated close to the Godrej factory in Bombay (now Mumbai) through commercial and passenger train wagons. These trains came to be known as ‘election specials’.

    In all, 12,83,371 boxes were dispatched across 68 working days, a tremendous effort by any standards.

    The Three Pillars

    From a legal and constitutional point of view, the entire electoral exercise rested on three pillars — Article 326 of the Constitution, the Representation of the People Act, 1950, and the Representation of the People Act, 1951.

    Article 326 of the Constitution prescribes who can vote. In 1951, this was individuals above the age of 21.

    The Representation of the People Act, 1950 was enacted to provide for the allocation of seats and delimitation of constituencies; to specify the qualifications of voters; decide on the procedure for the preparation of electoral rolls; and the manner of filling seats. The Act permits persons who are ordinarily resident in a constituency to be registered in its electoral rolls. These persons include members of the armed forces, the police force of a state who is serving outside the state, and government employees posted outside India.

    The Representation of the People Act, 1951 was enacted to regulate the conduct of elections; to specify the qualifications and disqualifications for membership of the Houses of Parliament and State Legislatures; curb corrupt practices and other offences; and to lay down the procedure for settling doubts and disputes arising out of the elections.

    The Contenders

    The Congress was the front-runner in the elections. As the party in power and the party viewed as having secured India’s freedom, it enjoyed a great deal of credibility and support. Its leader, Jawaharlal Nehru, was extremely popular.

    But competition emerged from several quarters. Just before the first election, Syama Prasad Mookerji (who served as Minister of Industry under Nehru) resigned from the Cabinet to set up the Bharatiya Jana Sangh, which sought to consolidate the Hindu right-wing vote. Dr B R Ambedkar, the architect of the Constitution, formed the Scheduled Caste Federation, which later became the Republican Party of India. Another high-profile Congress leader, J B (Acharya) Kriplani, founded the Kisan Mazdoor Praja Party. Ram Manohar Lohia and Jayaprakash Narayan were the forces behind the Socialist Party. The communists, who had just abandoned an armed struggle in Telangana, also jumped into the electoral fray, even though they were very vocal about their misgivings about electoral democracy.

    Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel did not participate in the elections. He had passed away in December 1950. Hence, the oft-heard claim that India might have turned out differently if he had become Prime Minister appears misplaced in the light of this indisputable fact.

    The First Electoral Results

    When the results came in, Congress had won 74 percent of all the seats, in the Parliament and the State Assemblies. However, some prominent leaders had lost, including Dr Ambedkar and Acharya Kripalani. Ambedkar was defeated in the Bombay North Central constituency by Narayan Sadoba Kajrolkar, a man who had been his personal assistant before he chose to contest against him. Acharya Kripalani lost from Faizabad in Uttar Pradesh. His wife, Sucheta Kripalani, was however victorious in Delhi.

    Nehru had, of course, won hands-down from Phulpur (renamed Allahabad District-East) in Uttar Pradesh but still, the losses were something of a lesson. Even in 1951, when Indian democracy was taking baby steps, Indian voters had a mind of their own. They were willing to listen to everyone but made up their own minds. Reputations and clout did not faze them.

    There were other issues the election had thrown up. Close to 2.8 million women had not been included in the electoral rolls. Social custom mandated that they could not disclose their names to strangers, in this case, the election officers. They preferred instead to identify themselves as someone’s wife or mother. This was a serious issue, particularly in northern India.

    In time, this issue of women unwilling to state their names was overcome, not so much by the tact of election officers but through education and the realization that elections were going to be a regular feature, and it was important that everyone participate in the process.

    There were also misgivings about how the first-past-the-post system itself worked. The Congress had won only 45 percent of the vote but had bagged 74 percent of the seats.

    Then there was the percentage of people who had actually voted: 45.7 percent. Clearly, the majority had not voted. It would be fair to assume that many of those who had not voted were those disadvantaged by caste, class and gender. How representative, then, was Indian democracy when its weakest had no say in the formation of the government?

    The conduct of the first elections was something of a triumph. The bureaucratic machinery had created a system from scratch and laid the foundation for the conduct of future elections. But this triumph, which was to a great extent a matter of managerial efficiency, blinded the political leaders of the time. Little heed was paid to the fact that women and the lower castes were under-represented and no thought was given to improving this state of affairs. Many candidates and parties had appealed to the electorate on the basis of caste and religion. This too was ignored.

    India has come a long way since then. Elections today are a regular feature of Indian social and political life and the processes set in motion in 1951 continue to have an impact on the country. And while there is much that needs fixing, there is also so much that Indians can be proud of.


    Karthik Venkatesh is a history enthusiast who writes on lesser-known aspects of India’s history.

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