From ballot papers to EVM and NOTA, a brief history of Lok Sabha elections

India witnessed its first ever elections in 1951-52. Since then, the democratic system has undergone a sea change with the number of voters, political parties and other stakeholders growing exponentially. Today, India is the world's largest democracy. How did it all start and where are we headed next?

This election season, has put together a series of videos that seeks to deconstruct various aspects of the massive democratic exercise to make every citizen aware of its history, processes, rules and other relevant information.

In the first episode,  find answers to what happened in independent India’s first ever election, how elections have progressed, what the Election Commission of India has been getting right, where we are now and where we are headed.

[This video series is produced by Factly as a part of the YouTube GNI Innovation Funding and has been republished here with permission. The summary transcribed below has been added by Citizen Matters]

What the video tells us

Democracy according to Abraham Lincoln is “Government of the people, for the people and by the people.” When we say “by the people” we most definitely do not mean “buy” the people.

There are primarily two forms of democracy – direct and indirect.

Direct democracy is when you as a citizen have a say in how the government runs. It is almost like attending a pizza party with friends and getting to choose the pizza topping. But as the group grows bigger, direct participation becomes difficult. Imagine a larger group where everyone is trying to order for the whole group. This invariably leads to chaos.

This is where the representative or the indirect form comes into the picture. A group selects a representative who ultimately takes administrative decision on their behalf. So the selection of the representative is called electing and the whole process is called elections. Indian elections are indirect or representative.

Election Commission of India

Free and fair elections are a must for a thriving democracy. Realising this, the Constituent Assembly did two things. First, it included Article 324 which facilitated the creation of the Election Commission of India. This is responsible for advising and administering elections in our country.

Second, it enacted two laws: Representation of People Act 1950 and Representation of People Act 1951. These established the rules about elections. The Constituent Assembly in an effort to make elections unbiased, made the Election Commission of India (ECI). This is an autonomous institution with accountability to the judiciary alone. The ECI has several important rights.

  1. Deciding election schedule
  2. Administering elections
  3. Appointment of election executives
  4. Monitoring of political parties.

The first election (1951-1952)

Now, even with all these powers in the first election of 1951-52, it was quite a tough task for the ECI because as a country we were just getting on our feet. The transport system was poor and the literacy rate was just around 16%. Moreover, it was first time that elections were being conducted at such a huge scale. Yet the ECI did a tremendous job.

  1. It gave voting rights to all people above 21, irrespective of caste, creed, gender
  2. It introduced party symbols to counter illiteracy.
  3. There were ballot papers handed over to the voters. Each voter would walk into a room. There would be separate boxes for each candidate and the voter would drop the ballot paper into the box of his or her choice.
  4. ECI provided for electoral booths within 3 miles of people’s residences. There was a booth made for just 9 voters.

There was a 44.5% turnout on election day. People were so impressed with the way the elections were conducted that some people wanted to vote for the Chief election commissioner in the next elections. The first election was so impressive that the Government of Sudan invited Sukumar Sen, the then election commissioner to guide them during their elections.

Since then, India became the largest democracy in the world. This might have had something to do with the ever growing population. Every election, the numbers of voters, parties and candidates have just gone up.

Corruption in electoral procedures

However, it wasn’t a cakewalk all along. The years between 1970 and 1991 were troublesome. Election violence had become quite the norm. Instances of murder, looting, kidnapping and rape were rampant in several places. Voter bribery and black money became widespread. Areas like UP and Bihar was notorious in this regard, so much so that a term like “peaceful booth capturing” came into existence. These shortcomings cast doubts on the ECIs ability.

But then came T.N. Seshan in 1990, under whose leadership the ECI decided to put its foot down against corruption. He took two measures to counter corruption:

  1. Naming and shaming using media
  2. Taking serious violations to court

In 1987, the ECI clashed with the then Prime Minister, Rajiv Gandhi over his insistence of advancement of presidential polls. It disqualified MP Cabinet Minister for incorrect election expenditure details. These actions restored the faith of the public in the elections.

Indelible ink, EVM and other initiatives

As the literacy rate of India improved voting age was brought down from 21 to 18 in 1988. Eventually, to counter impersonation, voters’ fingers were marked with the iconic indelible ink.

Soon, what started off as one ballot box per contestant was replaced by a single ballot box. As technology made progress, electronic voting machines or EVMs were introduced. VVPAT is being used recently for increasing transparency. The availability of NOTA (none of the above) option is also a recent development. This option has been added to gauge voter dissatisfaction towards all of the contesting candidates.

The Economic Intelligence Unit while measuring our democracy index gave India’s electoral process a score of 9.17 on 10. This success is mostly owed to the Election Commission of India.

Yet, the electoral procedure is plagued by issues of voter bribing, defection and political candidates with criminal backgrounds. These issues have to be either addressed by the ECI or the political parties. The sooner these are addressed, the better.

Even though the EC officers, government officials and security employees work incredibly hard to conduct elections, the most important element of the show still remains the enthusiasm of the people.

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