Chennai has just voted, along with the rest of Tamil Nadu. Waiting for the results may be a good time to think of the first mass-based election – in 1937, when over 35 million or about 25 per cent of the adult population voted in all British-ruled provinces of India, for the local legislatures. In Madras Presidency, that meant elections to the newly created Madras Legislative Assembly.
Our city was the capital of this vast Presidency, which extended from Andhra to Kanyakumari and so the atmosphere was electric. Adding to the excitement was the Congress party, contesting elections for the first time. Leading the campaign effort was S Satyamurti, veteran freedom-fighter, lawyer, theatre personality, patron of music and a magnificent orator. Under Satyamurti, the campaign was to be a colourful one.
He had for long been using theatre and (from 1931) film artistes, to attract crowds for his public meetings. In the 1937 campaign he was to press them once again into service. Chief among these were KB Sundarambal and ‘Avvai’ TK Shanmugam. Those were polls when in place of symbols, each party was identified by a ballot box of a certain colour and the voter had to push his paper into the box of his/her choice. The Congress party was assigned the colour yellow. At each public meeting, Sundarambal and Shanmugam would sing song hits from their plays and when a sizeable crowd had collected, would speak about the Congress. Then Sundarambal would wax eloquent on the good and auspicious qualities of turmeric and therefore the colour yellow. They would then depart after asking everyone assembled to vote for the yellow box. The Devadasi campaigner Tanjavur Kamukannammal would give the colour a different twist. She would speak about snuff and then ask everyone to vote in the ‘snuff box’! A special gramophone record containing the songs of Sundarambal and Musiri Subramania Iyer along with Congress appeals carried the message into households.
Such was the Congress juggernaut that some opposing candidates opted to withdraw rather than fight the polls. The first unopposed return to the Assembly was announced a month before the election – a certain K Kamaraj Nadar (!!) was declared elected from the Sattur-Aruppukottai rural constituency.
Those were days when newspapers could get away by being blatantly partisan (or patriotic depending on how you looked at it). The Hindu, carried a headline instructing its readers to “Fill the Yellow Boxes”. “Voters should require little persuasion at this time of the day to vote for the Congress,” it said. On the eve of polling day (February 14) NS Varadachari, a Congress candidate, was roughed by hired thugs in the Triplicane area. The Hindu carried a column on this and also had a photograph of Varadachari leading a procession, with bandaged head!
The results, when announced on February 24, were well worth the effort. The Congress had cornered 74 per cent of the seats in the Assembly, the best performance by the party anywhere in India.
This article appeared in the Hidden Histories column of The Hindu dated April 26, 2014