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Just how staggering is the logistic of conducting Lok Sabha election in India? 1st to 18th

Over 960 million electors, 470 million of them women, will soon elect 543 Lok Sabha MPs by casting their ballots in 1.2 million booths overseen by 15 million officials across 28 states and nine Union territories in a multi-phase election.

The logistics of the world’s largest festival of democracy is indeed staggeringly mind-boggling. Over 960 million electors, of whom 470 million are women, will soon elect 543 members of parliament by casting their ballots in one of the 1.2 million booths overseen by 15 million election officials across the 28 states and nine Union territories in a multi-phase Lok Sabha election. In the contest are the well-entrenched BJP-led 38-party grouping called the NDA, which is pitted against the fledgling Congress-led 27-member bloc I.N.D.I.A. As of now, two electorally significant regional parties, the BJD and the Akali Dal, are going solo.

The primary responsibility of conducting elections lies with the Returning Officers—one for each parliamentary constituency. Usually, the District Magistrate (DM) is the Returning Officer for one or more candidates from her district, but there are very small districts as well, in which the Returning Officer may be from the neighbouring district. Then there is an entire spectrum of Observers—from general observers to expenditure observers to special observers, sector magistrates, and micro-observers appointed by the Election Commission of India (ECI), as well as more than 3.5 lakh security personnel from Central Armed Police Forces(CAPFs) to assist the existing state police force and Home Guards.

Then there are field reporters, commentators, analysts, background researchers, and now specialist agencies like IPAC, Jarvis Consulting, Design Box, Rajneethi, Political Edge, Janmat Consulting, Inclusive Minds, and many others, which advise candidates and parties on the strategic outreach of their election campaigns. These agencies are armed with data about booth-level demographics and assist candidates and political parties in pitching their campaigns by coining the requisite slogans, designing ads for print, social media, and wall graffiti, besides ensuring that expenditure is incurred in a manner that does not invite allegations of spending more than the stipulated amount of Rs 75-95 lakh for the Lok Sabha and Rs 28-40 lakh for the Assembly segment. (The variation in the amount is due to the differential size of the constituency and the number of electors). They have taken over from the traditional foot soldiers of political parties who earlier drew their campaign personnel from the frontal organisations—the student movement, trade unions, kisan morchas, mahila mandals, and party workers.

Meanwhile, new startups in Hyderabad are also looking at helping candidates with crowdsourcing funds for election campaigns, especially for new parties that are yet to spread their wings in the electoral space.

Then and now

Let us now go back to the years when India was making the transition to a Republic. The Constituent Assembly notified the establishment of an Election Commission in November 1949, and in March of the following year, Sukumar Sen of the Indian Civil Service (ICS), then-Chief Secretary of West Bengal, was appointed as the first Chief Election Commissioner of India, even before the Representation of the People Act was enacted by the Constituent Assembly a few months after this. As historian Ramachandra Guha explains:

“Nehru’s haste [in wanting India’s first general election] was understandable, but it was viewed with some alarm by the man who had to make the election possible, a man who is an unsung hero of Indian democracy.” He adds, “It was perhaps the mathematician in Sen, which made him ask the prime minister to wait. No officer of State, certainly no Indian official, has ever had such a stupendous task placed in front of him. Consider, first of all, the size of the electorate: 176 million Indians aged 21 or more, of whom about 85 per cent could not read or write. Each voter had to be identified, named, and registered. This registration of voters was merely the first step. For how did one design party symbols, ballot papers, and ballot boxes for a mostly unlettered electorate? Then, polling stations had to be built and properly spaced out, and honest and efficient polling officers recruited. Voting had to be as transparent as possible, to allow for the fair play of the multiplicity of parties that would contest. Moreover, with the general election would take place elections to the State Assemblies. Working with Sukumar Sen in this regard were the election commissioners of the different provinces, also I.C.S. men.”

This was, therefore, a One Nation One Vote election—simultaneous elections based on the same electoral roll were held in 68 phases. A total of 196,084 polling booths were set up for 105 million voters, of which 27,527 booths were reserved for women. The majority of voting took place in early 1952, but the first voters of the Republic were the electors of the tehsil of Chini in Himachal Pradesh, as the weather was commonly inclement in February and March, with heavy snow impending free movement.

Thus, 1952 is the year of the first election in which the 489 seats of the Lok Sabha were allotted across 401 constituencies across the states. There were 314 constituencies electing one member using the first-past-the-post system. Eighty-six constituencies elected two members, one from the general category and one from Scheduled Castes or Scheduled Tribes. There was one constituency – Bankura in West Bengal – with three elected representatives: one each for each category. The multi-seat constituencies were created as reserved seats for backward sections of society and were abolished in 1961 by the Two-Member Constituencies (Abolition) Act.

Of the 1949 candidates who contested, 489 were returned, but the strength of the Lok Sabha was supplemented by a nominated member from Andaman and Nicobar Islands, Reverend Richardson, who instituted village councils and tribal councils in Andaman and Nicobar Islands respectively as part of the gradualist approach of Verrier Elwin. Then there were the two nominated Anglo-Indian members—Frank Anthony and AET Barrow—as per Article 331, two seats were reserved for them for the first ten years, but the provision was extended till the 104th Constitutional Amendment Act, which finally abolished these reserved seats in 2019.

In any case, the result of the first Lok Sabha election was a landslide victory for the Indian National Congress (INC), which received 45% of the vote and won 364 of the 489 seats. Jawaharlal Nehru became the first democratically elected Prime Minister of the country. The second-placed Socialist Party received only 11% of the vote and won 12 seats. The Bharatiya Jana Sangh returned three candidates, while four seats were captured by the Hindu Mahasabha and three by the Ram Rajya Parishad – but these 10 members also agreed to make an informal alliance under the leadership of Syama Prasad Mookerjee.

Meanwhile, Lakshadweep was part of the Malabar constituency until 1956 but became a separate Union Territory that year. However, the first election was held only in 1967. Between 1957 and 1962, Lakshadweep had a nominated Member of Parliament, K Nalla Koya Thangal. Interestingly, Jammu and Kashmir did not have any representation in the first Lok Sabha, but in 1954, Article 81 of the Constitution (Composition of the House of the People) was modified through Article 370 (1) by Paragraph 5 (c) of the Constitution (Application to Jammu and Kashmir) Order 1954, to the effect that “the representatives of the State in the House of the People shall be appointed by the President on the recommendation of the Legislature of the State.”

Sukumar Sen continued to be the Chief Election Commissioner during the second election held between 24 February and 14 March 1957. The Congress improved its vote share to 47% in this term, winning 371 of the 494 seats, and their vote share increased from 45% to 47.8%. However, the second election also witnessed the first instance of booth capturing in the Begusarai district of Bihar, where the election to the Matihani assembly seat was countermanded. It was a Bhumihar belt, and though the Communist Party also had a stronghold in the region, this particular election was won by the Congress. However, five years later, Chandrashekhar Singh of the Communist Party of India (CPI) won from this district.

But such instances were still few and far between. Although Section 123 of the Representation of the People Act of 1951 laid down ‘corrupt practices,’ the definition was not exhaustive, and in any case, the founding fathers and mothers had not envisaged such perversion of the political process. It was only in 1989 that the term ‘booth capturing’ was formally defined, and punishments were prescribed for the same. By the 1970s and 1980s, the practice had become quite prevalent in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, and West Bengal, though the Communist Party of India (Marxist) practised something called ‘booth management,’ in which the cadres would fill up the line and vote at a snail’s pace to exhaust the patience of general voters.

Sanjeev Chopra is a former IAS officer and Festival Director of Valley of Words. Until recently, he was Director, Lal Bahadur Shastri National Academy of Administration. He tweets @ChopraSanjeev. Views are personal.

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