Dawn of Democracy

As Kerala goes to polls today, TNIE walks down memory lane to 1952, when the first general elections of independent India were held
Scenes from polling booths in Kerala
Scenes from polling booths in KeralaPhoto | I & PRD Kerala government

KOCHI: In October 1951, a newly independent India embarked on its most ambitious project yet — its first general elections. Spread over four months, the elections, conducted in 68 phases and with 1,949 candidates in the fray, was the biggest democratic exercise ever undertaken.

It was a sight to behold, says writer and critic M K Sanoo, who had exercised his franchise in the polls. “The Kerala we know today was not formed yet. There was Thiru-Kochi and Madras,” recalls the noted writer. He was 26 then. The minimum age to vote was 21.

“It was the first election after the adoption of our Constitution. A majority of the people were illiterate. I remember, there was a person in the booth helping everyone vote, especially those who couldn’t read or write. The vote went into boxes adorned with each party’s symbols. One box for one party, and that is how one identified the candidate,” he adds.

Forget colour prints and mics, there were not even proper roads back then. Electricity was also rare. “So let’s not even think about advertisements, 24x7 news channels or social media like now,” Sanoo laughs. “But it was the first time everyone got a chance to vote.”

Though Travancore had gone to the polls a few years ago, casting the vote was limited to only a few. Pattom A Thanupilla was elected as the Prime Minister of Travancore in 1948, only to resign three months later.

The campaigning though, Sanoo adds, was always a collective event. “Public meetings, speeches, visiting house after house… all these were common. And so too were skirmishes between the parties,” he says. Sanoo Mash, as he is popularly known, was a regular figure at public meetings. “I used to give speeches for the Communist Party of India.”

Historian Malayankeesh Gopalakrishnan was around four years old when India first went to the polls. According to him, the campaigning largely revolved around public processions, speeches (often without a loudspeaker), and house visits of candidates (sometimes on bullock carts).

courtesy: I&PRD Kerala government
courtesy: I&PRD Kerala government

Flags planted atop areca nut trees too were a regular sight. “We had notices and wall paintings. However, none were as colourful as today,” Gopalakrishnan says.

This was the election that saw the first woman MP getting elected from the region. “Annie Mascarene contested as an independent candidate and won with a huge margin. Since CPI was not contesting here, a lot of Left supporters apparently voted for her,” he says. Another interesting tidbit is that Nagercoil was a constituency in Thiru-Kochi.

Gopalakrishnan also remembers tales of women voting. “See, it was just a few years after independence and poverty was rampant. So was the lack of availability of clothes. So, women of an area used to vote in stages. The first group will go vote and come back, then the next group will borrow their clothes and vote. This will continue till everyone voted,” he recalls.

The fervour for voting was relatively high in Travancore. “People had been waiting for a chance. This was the first time everyone was allowed exercise their franchise. For, in British India and later independent Travancore, voting was reserved for the rich and the upper caste,” Gopalakrishnan points out.

Veteran journalist Joseph Maliakan’s father was a candidate in the 1951-52 election. He was a candidate of the Praja Socialist Party. “I still remember stories of my father contesting. The remnants of his campaign remained on the walls of the area for a long time,” says Joseph.

Though elections meant an air thick with campaign fervour, there was not much noise, recalls Vattapparambil Peethambaran. “No house visits too. There would be meetings organised at junctions where candidates would assemble and speak to small crowds,” says the Malayalam teacher and writer, now 87.

“Electioneering used to be done using a megaphone that did not need electricity. There used to be drum beats preceding such announcements,” says Jithinam Radhakrishnan, a collector of election antiques who shares details about these keepsakes on WhatsApp.

The megaphone was used mostly at night for announcements, says K P Sadu, technical assistant at the Department of Archaeology. “The residential areas were not as thickly populated as now. There used to be a lot of vacant spaces and so, the sound from the megaphone would travel far and wide.”

Back in Kochi, which joined Travancore in 1949, the election was held in full vigour. “Rallies, speeches, announcements on cycles, bullock carts adorned with flags… it was relatively colourful,” recalls 82-year-old Krishnabalan Paliath, former manager of Paliam Eswara Sewa Trust.

Krishnabalan’s father was a staunch supporter and member of the Congress party. “Somehow, even with the lack of roads, electricity and technology, candidates visited almost every house,” he says.

He also vividly remembers the ‘lightbox’ that parties employed to grab eyeballs. A lantern was placed inside a box covered in white cloth. At night, the party symbol painted on the linen will be visible for miles. “This was a major attraction of the time,” adds his wife Geetha, 78, who comes from a strong Communist family.

“The major ones then were the Congress, with two bullocks and a yoke as their symbol, and the CPI, with their sickle and paddy husk. Hindu Maha Sabha and Jan Sangh were not big players in the region at the time. Their growth happened much later,” Geetha says.

Writer M N Karassery, born in 1951, just months before the election, grew up hearing about the poll stories. “Fifty-three parties contested the polls on the national stage. Ultimately, it was a landslide win for the Congress party, which went on to win 364 of the 489 seats,” he says.

Karassery says, there were two extremely interesting aspects about the 1951-52 polls. “One, Ambedkar was defeated from Bombay North constituency by Congress candidate Narayan Sadoba Kajrolkar. Two, there were separate women-only booths; 27,527 in total across the country. Also, the contribution of women in politics was larger and wasn’t an afterthought,” he says.

He adds that several national issues were not much in discussion in Thiru-Kochi, but there was a slight Nehru wave in Malabar. In the first election, Malabar was part of Madras state.

“Though Congress won 45% of the vote share across the country, it suffered in Thiru-Kochi and Malabar. A K Gopalan won from Kannur with 65.87% votes. He got the largest majority in the Malabar region, and won by a margin of 87,029 votes. The Muslim League won Malappuram. Thalasserry, Ponnani and Kozhikode went to Kisan Mazdoor Praja Party (KMPP),” Karassery says.

The 1951-52 elections, which saw over 17 crore people cast their votes, helped catapult India, a relatively young nation, to the global avenue as a beacon of democracy. As Kerala goes to the polls today, the ethos of the first general elections continues to inspire the populace.

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