Shyam Saran Negi prepares to vote in Lok Sabha polls for 17th time: India's oldest voter seeks strong leader as PM

In October 1951, Shyam Saran Negi became the first person to vote in Independent India. Now, over 67 years on, Negi has not missed voting in a single election

Firstpost print Edition

It wasn't yet five in the morning when Shyam Saran Negi unlocked the doors of the school in the tiny Himachal Pradesh village of Kalpa, blanketed in snow blowing off the majestic Kinner Kailash range. As a gaggle of villagers gathered outside, he carefully laid out cargo that had been hauled over the Himalayas on mule-back. Then, it was the moment for a decision: Negi dropped slips of paper into two of the eight steel boxes in front of him, and became the first person to vote in free India.

Ever since that first encounter with an election — held in October 1951 in the Kinnaur region and 1952 everywhere else, Negi has never missed a chance to vote. He's looking forward to voting again this summer, in the company of his granddaughter, college student Manisha Negi.

Now 102 years old, Negi's story mirrors the making of modern India: Through disappointments and changing circumstances, he has held on to the values of the Republic, and of democracy.

 Shyam Saran Negi prepares to vote in Lok Sabha polls for 17th time: Indias oldest voter seeks strong leader as PM

India's first voter Shyam Saran Negi. Firstpost/Pragya Singh

Negi can usually be found on the roof of his two-storey stone and wood ancestral home in Kalpa, drinking hot, milky tea sweetened with jaggery. He protects himself from the bitter cold with a brown wool coat that is more than seven decades old — a flag that signifies his own small role in the gigantic struggle for independence, and what he believes to be its unfinished task. "Mahatma Gandhi told us how our country could eliminate hunger through khadi," Negi says, "He told us that we could meet our own needs and also sell some cloth; then nobody would die of hunger."

Gandhi's message reached Kalpa in the late 1930s, in the form of his call for all Indians to stop buying foreign cloth, and instead turn to the spindle and loom to weave their own.

Negi had just finished a seven-year stint as a forest guard, and begun work in what was then just one of three schools in the entire region. Negi insisted that that his pupils join him in spinning for an hour every day — a practice that continued until 1975 when he retired.

For Negi, the Raj years are not an abstraction: His ideas of how imperialism incapacitated India's rural economy are based on lived reality. Negi vividly recalls being lined up to salute visiting British imperial officials who would arrive to supervise the Rampur royal family's extraction of revenues from Kinnaur's wool trade. The work was hard and the pay poor.

The social fabric of the mountains divided neatly, he recalls, into a small sliver of rich feudal families and a peasantry "of the kind who didn't know where their next meal would come from despite backbreaking work".

"The angrez (British) controlled all the avenues for revenue collection — the forests, the public works — and whatever remained was the Raja's. The British wanted money and they took it," he remembers with bitterness.

From the plains came stories of Bhagat Singh, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru and Subhash Chandra Bose — the last of them remains Negi's hero. "Bose was a unique heavyweight, capable of taking on the British. He started the Indian National Army chupke-chupke, secretly," says Negi.

The stories he heard made him yearn to be a freedom fighter, too — but there was no way to become one in Kalpa. Instead, Negi turned to khadi to take on the British. "When you just spin and weave 12 months a year, you're bound to end up saving at least a little," he argues.

Independence, for him, was fundamentally about this kind of individual accountability and independence. "We spun for an hour every day, but they did not market khadi properly, so it died out. Now, everyone buys things from markets and there's no self-sufficiency," he says.

Negi at his home in Kalpa. Firstpost/Pragya Singh

Negi at his stone and wood ancestral home in Kalpa. Firstpost/Pragya Singh

Back in 1951, polling stations had separate ballot-boxes for each candidate; all a voter had to do was drop their slip into the boxes marked with their candidate's symbol. Like everyone else in the Mandi-Mahasu constituency, Negi had two ballot papers; the constituency was, because of its size, allowed to elect two candidates. Amrit Kaur, the Oxford University-educated princess who abandoned her privilege for the rigours of Gandhi's ashram, won 47,152 of the 175,377 votes cast; her Congress party colleague, Gopi Ram, came in second with 41,433.

Today, Negi is a voluble supporter of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the Bharatiya Janata Party.

Funds meant for local development, and infrastructure such as roads and electrification, used to be stolen by corrupt leaders, he says, but the prime minister has put an end to their corruption. "Earlier, we voted for Congress because they won us freedom. They were also the only party we had. But all their mistakes have been exposed before the public now," he says.

"People just don’t understand the value of their vote," Negi argues, "I have seen the suffering the British inflicted. They let the rajas and maharajas be. Even the Congress did not disturb them." For Negi, the choice is simple: A "good man" in Parliament or the state Assembly will improve the country while a "bad man" will harmful in equal measure.

In Negi's book, goodness and toughness are indivisible qualities, both of which he seeks in the leaders of a party for whom he votes. "The Congress has too many internal squabbles, that's also why I moved away from it," he says. His drift away from the Congress took place sometime around the 1970s or 1980s — Negi cannot remember exactly — but it was the twin promises of clean governance and strong leadership that moved him firmly into the BJP camp in the 2014 elections.

And there’s a bit of Modi in Negi's shift. The question of who could be prime minister after the 2019 elections is of great importance to Negi. He finds Modi charismatic and Rahul Gandhi, the Congress leader and a possible prime minister, not so appealing. Negi is also charmed by Modi's ability to forge a connection with voters, an attribute he feels the prime minister's less-experienced Congress rival lacks.

"People had even rejected Indira (Gandhi)," Negi says, recalling the elections for the sixth Lok Sabha in 1977, when the then prime minister took her party from 518 to 153 seats in the wake of the Emergency she had imposed in June 1975.

People in the plains, Negi knows, recently voted for the Congress in Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan but he insists there’s no chance he will stray from the BJP. "Some people are always dissatisfied," he says, dismissing arguments that the prime minister hasn’t delivered on his promises.

The only post-Independence politician before Modi who inspires Negi's admiration is India’s second prime minister, Lal Bahadur Shastri. Negi remembers, fondly, his speeches during the 1962 India-China war. The speeches inspired him to push one of his sons to join the Indian Army.

"My son turned out to be an idler who spent five years in Dehradun preparing for military exams, but didn’t get selected," he complains, "He became a bank manager when I wanted him to shoulder the country’s burden. Had he joined the military we would have earned name and fame."

Negi taking in an afternoon siesta. Firstpost/Pragya Singh

Negi taking in an afternoon siesta. Firstpost/Pragya Singh

In spite of corruption that so angers Negi, Kalpa did transform rapidly in the decades after Independence, turning from an obscure provincial outpost to the heart of a prosperous, apple-growing region. Kinnaur became a district in the early 1960s, and state governments encouraged apple plantation in an effort to stimulate the economy. The idea worked: Negi's family is one of Kalpa's 226 landlords with significant holdings. Their apple crop earns them Rs four to five lakh every year.

From Negi's point of view, though, the change hasn't all been positive. "Apple-growers use chemical fertilisers, and that kill off our traditional buckwheat crop," he says. Kalpa's steeply terraced farms are incapable of supporting fodder. Farm animals are few — his family has just one cow. That means manure has to be bought from Rekong Peo, the district headquarters a half-hour drive downhill.

Negi recognises that before apples were grown in Kalpa, farmers had to do much more backbreaking work. "In the past, people woke at 6 am and returned late every evening. For small girls or old people, there was nothing but work, work, work."

But that, he says, wasn't all that bad. "The apple has made people lazy," he snorts.

Behind that belief lies a deeper discontent, fuelled by a changing social structure. The joint family system, built around fraternal polyandry, has all but disintegrated. "Earlier, Kalpa had a common marriage system with one wife for many brothers, all living together. One brother looked after the animals, one the fields and one had a job. All incomes combined benefited the whole family," he says.

"These days one has as many problems as there are sons — who have all become independent."

Negi admits polyandry wasn't always fair to women, but blames politics for replacing it with something worse. "When the country became Independent, they raised the slogan 'Sukhi Parivar' —happy family — which meant husband, wife and two children, that's it. This is how we were told to live, so everybody became separate. Now our farmholdings are shrinking and the population is growing too fast," he says.

"I think," Negi says, "if brothers cannot stay together, how will the country stay united?"

Even his family has been subjected to deep change. In the past decades, the family voted en bloc — but times have changed, and in past elections, each member has been free to follow their political conscience. Chander Prakash — the son and his wife Prema care for Negi — isn't enthused by politics; at least, not that he lets on. Prema's expectations from politics and politicians are also low. "I vote because everyone has a vote and should use it," she says. Then she shrugs.

Granddaughter and engineering student Manisha used to be an enthusiastic BJP supporter. Now, though, she isn't so sure. "Elected governments must provide jobs and security," she says. Manisha is concerned that it's going to hard to find work after she completes her degree.

The divided opinions in the family on India's political future, though, reflect how it has always been — and, perhaps, should be. Even back in 1951, there were eight candidates fighting to get elected. Tej Singh, from the left-leaning Kisan Mazdoor Praja Party, socialist candidate Anokhi Ram, and the Bharatiya Jan Sangh's Hari Datt, picked up tens of thousands of votes in Mandi-Mahasu, making clear there was no one voice that represented a free India.

"After Independence," Negi says, "our leaders declared that nobody is big or small in India, nor Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs, that all will be equal. This idea was what Independence was all about, but it wasn't implemented. The angrez left behind this illness."

But Negi sits on the roof of his home in Kalpa and still hopes that his next vote might help cure it.

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