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Déjà View | Ballot and beyond

LiveMint logoLiveMint 16-05-2014 Sidin Vadukut

As I write this week’s column on Thursday evening, there are still a few hours to go before poll trends and results start streaming into our living rooms and Twitter timelines. There is an unmistakable sense of anticipation in the air.

However, if you ask me, what happens next is every bit as exciting and impressive. If the incumbent United Progressive Alliance loses, as is widely expected, in just a few days time an entire new government will seamlessly take over from the old one. Somehow the world’s largest democracy will switch to new management and pivot in new directions. Suddenly all the animosity and hostility of a savage campaign will be replaced—albeit momentarily—by shaking of hands, sharing of notes and switching of seats.

Which then begs the question: How come? How does India manage to transfer power in such orderly fashion term after term? What explains this enviable record of stability in, and sanctity for, the electoral process?

The one institution that often gets attributed with this is the Election Commission. But ever since his appearance in Ramachandra Guha’s seminal India After Gandhi, one man has been widely credited with creating the foundations of India’s solid electoral process: Sukumar Sen, the first election commissioner.

For a man of such stature, little is written about Sukumar Sen. As Guha says in his book, an authoritative biography is long overdue. If only Sen had left any diaries or personal papers. He appears to have not.

What we do know about Sen is that besides conducting India’s first two elections, he was also involved with the first polls in both Nepal and Sudan. In Nepal, Sen helped draw up electoral rolls.

His involvement in Sudan was much more comprehensive.

Sen headed the Mixed International Commission that supervised the first Sudanese elections in November 1953. These elections were held in difficult political circumstances. Sudan was then jointly governed by both Egypt and the UK. Both countries sought to prop up their own favourite parties in an election that would give Sudan self-governance. Self-governing Sudan would then decide if it wanted to form a union with Egypt, or strike out on its own.

But why did they call Sen over? Because conducting an election in Sudan in 1953 involved solving the same problems that Sen had dealt with in India in 1951. Sudan was also a large country, with poor connectivity, ethnic diversity, plenty of poor, illiterate voters, and little prior exposure to electoral process.

So how did Sen and his Mixed International Commission do?

Very well indeed. A report on Sudanese elections published by the Rift Valley Institute (RVI) in 2009 says: “Despite the fears of many British officials that the logistical difficulties would be insurmountable, and that rural Sudanese would be unable to comprehend the idea of voting, there was a large turnout in many areas and the election passed off peacefully…the sense of national success that some Sudanese derived from the election helped inspire the decision to choose independence, rather than union with Egypt, in 1956.”

Sen later called the Sudanese polls a model of its kind.

At this point in history, in the early fifties, after their inaugural elections, both India and Sudan seemed well placed to build on their success. Both somewhat similar countries now had experience with polling, trained staff, substantial pride, a process that works, and the satisfaction of having proved naysayers wrong.

Yet what follows is a remarkable divergence in political fortunes. Over the next few decades Sudan sees ethnic warfare, two civil wars, and the terrible Darfur conflict. Later South Sudan broke away from Sudan. Meanwhile Sudan itself has seen three elected governments toppled and three periods of military rule. The RVI report says: “No multi-party election has ever produced a stable government, and this abundance of elections has not generated any kind of political consensus or a generally shared sense of national identity. Nor has it ensured popular support for parliamentary rule.”

The Indian experience on the other hand could not have been more different. India, of course, was, and is, no peaceful wonderland. But it has enjoyed far greater political stability than Sudan.

Sen is rightly praised for his foundational efforts. But as we have seen, that alone is not enough. What explains this divergence from Sudan? What worked in India’s favour?

Could it be that India had founders classy enough to never let their rivalries divert democratic process? Or was it because the Congress in the fifties had such an unassailable lead that it never saw the need to tamper with the ballot box? Did the rampant arena of state politics somehow help to siphon away instability from the central government? Or were we just plain lucky?

This is worth thinking about even as we celebrate yet another mammoth round of elections.

The Sudanese experience also reminds us that the ballot is necessary but by no means sufficient. We must not fetishize the ballot. What ultimately nourishes and sustains the democracy is not just excellence during the elections, but excellence afterwards.

(This column was written before the election results were declared)

Every week, Déjà View scours historical research and archives to make sense of current news and affairs.

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