Lt Gen Baljit Singh (retd)
When India set out on its electoral journey in 1951, the country and countrymen at large had not the vaguest idea of democracy nor of the worthies who aspired to represent them in the first Lok Sabha. I witnessed first-hand how a handful of bureaucrats took it upon themselves, sans the Election Commission and the model code of conduct, to facilitate ‘fair and free’ casting of the ballot. PM Nehru was scheduled to address an election rally at Sangrur, where my father was the District Commissioner. I accompanied him as he criss-crossed the district from dawn to dusk for a week, educating his subordinates, down to the patwaris, and the police constabulary at each thana, about the historic change-in-the-making and their responsibility to ensure calm for the judicious exercise of franchise.
The message had percolated and the common people were so enthused that they brought out their treasured artefacts such as phulkaris to decorate polling booths, adding a festive touch to the sombre exercise.
Nehru was received by the CM at Ambala, the only air strip in Punjab then. The cavalcade comprised just four automobiles, including a black limousine, courtesy the Maharaja of Patiala. On reaching the venue, Kairon Sahib introduced my father to Nehru, who shook hands. The crowd of several thousand peasants had become restive but the moment Nehru, in his signature achkan, faced them from the podium, all eyes turned upon him in hushed silence. He finished his brief exhortation of 10 minutes with a flourish, requesting the audience to get up and join him in the chorus of ‘Bharat Mata ki jai ho’. The entire town resonated with the chant.
A few years ago, I chanced upon an entry in the personal diary of a DFO from the interior of Madhya Pradesh concerning his poignant experience of the 1951 Lok Sabha polls. He had set out to establish a polling booth at Pathera village, along with a clerk, two unarmed constables, one sealed ballot-box and some stationery in a timber contractor’s truck. They traversed a 106-km bumpy ride over a dirt track. The last 32 km was in a bullock cart through a dense forest, now part of the Kanha Tiger Reserve.
By 10 am, the entire village had gathered outside the booth. Women first applied kum-kum and then garlanded the box! The DFO called out the 12 listed voters, mentioned names of the candidates, what they stood for and the significance of their vote. When the last ballot was cast by 11:30 am, they arose in unison, and led by the headman returned to their huts, chorusing ‘Bharat Mata ki jai ho!’ Two days later, the sealed box was deposited at the district headquarters treasury!
There was no cacophony of loudspeakers, candidates did not trade insulting barbs, the voter was not enticed. Have we frittered away that wealth of civilised innocence of a nation for the mockery of hustings as they have come to pass now?
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