The steward of India’s first date with democracy

ICS officer Sukumar Sen oversaw 1st election post Independence.
Image used for representational purposes only.
Image used for representational purposes only.File Photo | AP

NEW DELHI : ICS officer Sukumar Sen, the then chief secretary of West Bengal, was chosen as the first election commissioner to administer and oversee the daunting task of conducting the first ever elections in independent India. Originally, the plan was to hold first elections in 1950. However, it could not be executed for about two years in absence of adequate regulations, census, electoral roll and demarcation of constituencies.

Conquering all the challenges — huge electoral size of 17.2 crore voters, lack of political training and complex terrain — the Election Commission of India (ECI) completed the necessary spadework under Sen’s leadership. The stage was set as India was marching towards creating a golden chapter of history. But other countries were not convinced.


Amid scepticism, the exercise began in the largest democracy. Defying all preconceived notions, people from all walks of life used their franchise and the electoral process ended on a positive note. The then US ambassador to India Chester Bowles (October 1951-March 1953), following his tours to several parts of the country during the elections, in his report write about the excitement among voters. He stated that he witnessed had long queues at the polling booths.

“I have seen women defy old customs and cast their first vote (it is estimated that a higher proportion of women voted than men)…I have seen Muslims, Christians, Buddhists, Jains and Hindus, peasants and rich landlords, workers in shorts and western-dressed officials, all waiting their turns in deciding the future of their country,” he said.

Referring to the successful completion of the first Lok Sabha elections, former chief election commissioner Navin Chawla in his book-- ‘Every Vote Counts: The story of India’s elections’—recorded that the decision to appoint Sen was a very ‘sound one’.


“At that time, it was certainly about the boldness of the democratic exercise, for there was no shortage of sceptics who were convinced that India’s experiment with democracy could not last. Among them were (predictably) the existing colonials, who believed that it was the Raj that kept India together despite its many fissiparous tendencies....the prophets of doom were to be proved wrong. PM Jawaharlal Nehru’s choice of Sukumar Sen as the first chief election commissioner was a very sound one,” he wrote.

For his contribution in strengthening the democratic arrangements in India, Sen is often referred to as ‘unsung hero of Indian democracy’. Following the 1951-52 general elections, many countries approached India to seek more details of its success story.

According to the ‘Leap of Faith’; Journey of Indian Elections, a publication of ECI, Bowles had a ‘change of mind’.

“Bowles, a liberal thinker and diplomat, arrived in India a few months before the general elections. He believed that the best solution for Asian countries would be a benevolent dictatorship like that of Kemal Ataturk in Turkey....Bowles felt that it was time to revise ‘out pessimistic, and somewhat arrogant assumption that democracy is practical only for developed and educated people’. He changed his assumption that Asia needed a series of Ataturks as a prelude to democracy,” it read.

After the successful completion of electoral process, Sen was nominated to chair the international commission to hold elections in Sudan. He spent more than a year abroad organising the elections. The elections in the former British Colony Sudan based on universal adult suffrage like India was met with great success.

Praising the contribution of Sen, author-duo Vipul Maheshwari Anil Maheshwari in their book—‘The Power of the Ballot: Travail and Triumph in the Elections’ stated, “His success was recognised internationally when he was asked to organise the first Sudan elections. As the voters get ready to clutch the voting papers for the second Indian general elections, every political party has a reason to remember Sen.”

Sen was bestowed with the third-highest civilian award, the Padma awards for his contribution.

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