When Indian CEC Sukumar Sen conducted elections in Sudan
by Saquib Salim on 05 May 2024 0 Comment

When the Indian National Congress adopted Universal Adult Suffrage as a goal in the 1920s, Western intellectuals and media mocked it. They believed - and they kept this belief till 1952 when the first general elections in free India were held - that such an attempt was bound to fail.


A Slice of History


Sukumar Sen, the first Chief Election Commissioner of India, wrote, “The main argument levelled in the past against adult suffrage was the magnitude of the task involved. It was felt that the number of voters under adult suffrage would exceed all reasonable bounds and that its adoption would involve too stupendous an administrative task for the governments. A second important argument advanced by the opponents of adult suffrage was the illiteracy of the voters which would render an election a farce unless an electoral system could be devised under which even an illiterate voter could cast his vote intelligently and in secret.”


The Indian Constituent Assembly adopted the principle of adult suffrage and thus reiterated its faith in the common masses of India and their political common sense. Journalists, observers, and officials from across the world came to India to study the first Indian general election. It provided a model to several Asian and African underdeveloped countries that had gained independence recently.


Sudan went a step ahead. In 1952, it was decided by a pact between Egypt, England, and Sudan that a free election would be held in Sudan. This was to be the first step towards freedom of Sudan. With less than 2% literacy, England argued that it was not ready for a democratic election based on universal adult suffrage. The Sudanese nationalists presented the Indian elections as a model. They believed that like India, Sudan could also have fair elections.


To conduct free and fair elections, Sukumar Sen, Chief Election Commissioner of India was appointed Chairman of the Sudan Electoral Commission in March 1953. The China Mail of 18 March 1953 reported, “The electoral commission of seven, which is to conduct the first Parliamentary elections in the Sudan, under the Anglo-Egyptian agreement of February 12 has already set up offices here, Mr Sukumar Sen, its Indian Chairman, announced today. The commission will consist of three delegates from Sudan and one each from Egypt, Britain, the United States, and India, with the Indian member as chairman.”


Jawaharlal Nehru told Lok Sabha on 25 March 1953, “At the request of the Governments concerned, we have sent one of our most experienced officers (Sukumar Sen) and he has been entrusted with a very difficult task. I have no doubt that he will discharge it to the best of his ability.”


The elections were successfully conducted in November 1953, which brought the National Unionist Party (NUP) led by Ismail Al-Azhari to power. The Western powers alleged that the elections were not fair because it meant an end to their colonial rule.


The China Mail reported on 18 December 1953, “Mr Sukumar Sen, Chairman of the Sudan Electoral Commission, today declared himself satisfied that the Sudanese people had a free and fair election. He said that as a technician he was not concerned about whether the Sudanese were under the political influence of one or other of the interested parties. He was replying to a question at a press conference as to whether he knew of any British or Egyptian interference in the elections.”


“Mr Sen said he considered the greatest single achievement of the Sudan election experiment was to have succeeded in bringing the individual to cast his vote whether in direct or indirect election.”


“Even if backward Sudanese only vaguely understood the meaning of the election, the fact that they were interested in voting should be regarded as an “achievement.” Next time the Sudanese will know better and next time there will be no indirect elections, he said.”


The Economist of 28 November 1953 wrote, “Mr. Sukumar Sen, who is extremely experienced in electoral matters,” while discussing the allegations by the Egyptian government that the election results were not fair.


The Economist on 5 December 1953 dismissed the charges against Sukumar Sen-led Electoral Commission. It wrote, “It is possible to point to a lack of evidence that any major interference in the elections occurred. Anglo-Egyptian recriminations have tended to obscure the fact that the Sudan Electoral Commission which Mr Sukumar Sen led through the labyrinthine detail of these elections, has been unable or unwilling to question the results. The commission has never suggested that the results were grossly perverted by Egypt. One must conclude, in these circumstances, that the elections were, in the first place, a rejection of a leadership which, largely by a policy of cooperation with the British administration, the Umma party has appeared to enjoy… Nor is it possible to avoid the conclusion that the elections are a vote against the British administration.”


The elections held in Sudan under Sukumar Sen added to the prestige of India as a flag bearer of electoral democracy. It showed the path that every human being should have equal political rights.


Sukumar Sen, based on his experience, wrote, “Experience demonstrates, therefore, that literary education, however desirable, is not an essential condition for the successful working of adult suffrage. However backward and ignorant the common man in an “undeveloped” country may be, he possesses in his way enough common sense to know what is good for him. Given a simple enough system of the ballot which he understands, he can be trusted to cast his vote intelligently by his own free will in favour of the representative of his choice. It is essential, however, that in order for the system of adult suffrage may work fairly and smoothly, two other conditions must be satisfied viz., (1) the conduct of elections must be strictly non-partisan or under neutral control, and (2) the executive government must sincerely desire free and fair elections and actively work for the same.”




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