The man in charge was Sukumar Sen. A bespectacled Bengali with neatly parted hair and an affinity for cigarettes, he had already carved a successful bureaucratic career. After attending Presidency College and London University, with a gold medal in mathematics at the latter, Sen joined the Indian Civil Service in 1921. Within three decades, he rose to become the Chief Secretary of West Bengal. But little — including his education and wide experience — could prepare Sen for the job he was entrusted with in March 1950: Conducting independent India’s first elections.
With an electorate of more than 173 million that spread out over a million square miles, registering and identifying each voter required a logistical operation of monumental proportions. Party symbols, ballots and ballot boxes needed to be designed to suit the requirements of a population where over 85% of voters were illiterate. Only after that could the building of polling booths and recruitment of staff begin.
“Bridges had to be specially constructed across rivers to reach remote hill villages; naval vessels would be required to carry the rolls to the voting booths on small islands in the Indian Ocean,” recalls historian Ramachandra Guha.
The world — let alone India — had seen nothing like it. ‘Unprecedented Exercise in Democracy’, was how The New York Times described the elections when they finally began in October 1951. “In spite of some ludicrous happenings India’s tremendous experiment in democracy is going off efficiently and with virtually no disorder,” wrote the newspaper’s New Delhi correspondent Robert Trumbull. “Furthermore, the political awareness of an immense electorate — the largest in the history of the world under a free system — is being demonstrated wholesomely.”
In the end, Jawaharlal Nehru and the Congress won, but it was also a victory for Sen and the vast electoral apparatus he helped build. “For while politicians in India are now anything but wise or patriotic,” Guha wrote in the Telegraph in 2008, “their misdeeds are kept somewhat in check by the mighty machine forged and welded by Sukumar Sen.”
Devjyot Ghoshal is a professional deadline beater and a multimedia journalist. Currently, he spends time attending lectures at the Columbia Journalism School. He argues with random people at @devjyotghoshal