Published : Dec 06, 2002 00:00 IST

The constitutionally objective measures taken by the Election Commission under the stewardship of J.M. Lyngdoh to conduct free and fair elections in Gujarat raise hopes of thwarting attempts to use communalism as a political mobilisation strategy.

THE men at the top of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad have never been notorious for lucidity of thought or expression. But there is something about Chief Election Commissioner J.M. Lyngdoh that reduces them to a kind of blithering incoherence that is exceptional even by their own standards.

Since the Godhra atrocity in February and the communal carnage that followed, the VHP has often spoken of Gujarat as a matter of pride and a vivid demonstration of how the jehadi culture is to be combated. To the utter chagrin of its leaders, Lyngdoh now seems embarked upon the quite different mission of establishing Gujarat as a model of free and fair elections in an atmosphere vitiated by hatred, coercion and intimidation. The odds against Lyngdoh's project are formidable since the communal poison has gone deep.

But the mere fact that the VHP has begun to react with something approaching malignant panic, shows that Lyngdoh, working in a remarkable spirit of consensus and harmony with Election Commissioners B.B. Tandon and T.S. Krishnamurthy, is doing things absolutely right.

If the malevolent dimension were to be overlooked, the VHP's acute aversion to the person of the CEC manifests itself in heightened symptoms of foolishness. Gujarat's caretaker Chief Minister Narendra Modi, as friendly an elected official as the VHP can possibly get, was the first to sound off on this theme, as early as August. After repeatedly spelling out Lyngdoh's name at a public meeting in Gujarat to emphasise his supposed faith, Modi wondered out aloud whether the CEC, a native of Meghalaya with a distinguished record in the Indian Administrative Service, was actually from Italy. Modi confessed that he did not quite know and needed to refer the question to Congress(I) president Sonia Gandhi who, he said, quite possibly meets Lyngdoh in church.

A new frenzy of vituperation has arisen now, with the Election Commission (E.C.) having directed the Gujarat State administration to stop the latest in the VHP's cycle of ritualised observances, the Jan Jagruti Yatra.

Conceived by the VHP as an accessory of the BJP's campaign for the State Assembly elections scheduled for December 12, the yatra was to begin at Godhra and end at the Akshardham temple in Gandhinagar on December 6. The source and destination of the yatra were symbolic in various ways, all deeply threatening to the delicate fabric of communal peace. The yatra was to be outfitted with a model of the burnt-out railway bogey in which scores died in the February arson attack at Godhra. And it was to end on the tenth anniversary of the demolition of the Babri Masjid, at the venue of another terrorist attack.

Displaying once again the VHP's well-known propensity for tortured analogies, Dharmendra Maharaj, the rabble-rousing spiritual huckster from Rajasthan, called Lyngdoh a "modern day Aurangzeb". And in a delicious irony, VHP general secretary Pravin Togadia, best known for his excursions into the animal kingdom for epithets to characterise the "pseudo-secularists", seemed suddenly to rediscover the Indian Constitution. The E.C. order, said Togadia, is a serious infringement of constitutional guarantees of free movement and political association.

As Godhra and much of Gujarat went about their normal business with evident relief, Togadia and Dharmendra were detained by the Panchmahals district administration on November 17. The VHP vowed to issue a formal response the following day. It is now torn between conflicting demands. On the one hand, it needs to ensure that elections go ahead, since the E.C. is reportedly of a mind to cancel them if the communal provocations persist.

At the same time, it needs to sustain an environment of deep communal polarisation to ensure that Modi's appeal to the moral majority remains unimpaired. But with the eyes of the world upon it, the BJP central leadership — notably Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee — proved uneasy about participating in an election campaign in which the VHP managed to set the agenda.

Vajpayee's subsequent actions earned him the charge of apostasy from the VHP's Giriraj Kishore. His offence was to uphold the E.C. directive and appeal to "all organisations" to honour it and help the "State administration to discharge its duty". This intervention came in the course of an interview with a leading Hindi news channel in Delhi. Shortly afterwards, the Press Information Bureau of the Central government put out a carefully screened paraphrase of the Prime Minister's remarks, with explanations of his intent. The basic purpose, it transpired, was to ensure that Godhra and the violence that followed should not be the sole issue in the elections. Vajpayee seemed directly to be censuring the BJP State unit in the guise of an "appeal" to "all" political parties "to focus their election campaigns on issues of development and governance, and not on matters that vitiate the atmosphere".

Vajpayee's comments seemed a direct rebuttal of the first reaction of the BJP's central leadership to the E.C. order. On November 14, the day after the E.C. issued its directive, BJP president M. Venkaiah Naidu termed it "inappropriate" on the most charitable reading. "In a democracy, people must have the right and liberty of free speech and movement and any restriction on this is not positive," he said. The BJP's spokesperson, former Union Law Minister Arun Jaitley, accused the E.C. of playing politics and entering the "political thicket". The VHP yatra was a religious event and had nothing to do with politics, he asserted.

Just the following day, Vajpayee put a rather different construction on the E.C. order while not directly challenging Jaitley's brazen assertion about the VHP's benign "religious" credentials: "With elections less than a month away, it is natural for political and social organisations to want to go among the people and conduct their campaigns. It is their democratic right.

However, it is also the democratic duty of one and all to exercise it in a lawful way. Even protest has to be expressed in a peaceful manner without inflaming passions." And as for the infringement of constitutional freedoms, Vajpayee chose to tread a fine line between upholding the law and appeasing the zealots within his own party. "On the face of it," he said, the E.C. decision "might look wrong, but given the circumstances in Gujarat, the ban order is right".

It is not clear yet whether formal divorce proceedings will begin in the near future between the BJP and the VHP. But since the E.C. under Lyngdoh's tough and principled stewardship began its phase of engagement with Gujarat, this is the first time that Vajpayee has managed to overrule the hardline element within his party and assert the basic proprieties of the rule of law. He had the opportunity at least twice before, but refused to take it.

Following Modi's odious references to the CEC's supposed religious affiliations in August, Vajpayee maintained a silence that seemed to suggest complicity more than reproach. But there is little question that the unanimous finding of the E.C., recorded on August 16, had been a critical turning point in the restoration of the rule of law to Gujarat after the "slash and burn" operations of Modi and his henchmen in the VHP.

Until August, it had seemed as if the BJP, which remains a close political affiliate of the VHP in Gujarat despite all the tensions elsewhere, was on a triumphal roll. The planning had begun in April, with a mawkish display of repentance by Modi over the carnage in Gujarat and a mock offer of resignation. Vajpayee, who by all accounts was keen to see the back of the man whose conduct in office had been a source of embarrassment on a global scale, flew to the BJP National Executive meeting in Goa in April, determined to take Modi up on his offer. Once there, he suffered the kind of conversion that his political career abounds in. Instrumental in inducing the change of heart were Arun Jaitley and Arun Shourie — two of the BJP's most urbane and sophisticated faces, detached from mass politics and reportedly in awe of the intimate contact that Modi retains with the most subterranean and destructive elements in politics.

Rather than censure Modi and send him on his way, Vajpayee in Goa engaged in an extraordinarily mean-spirited harangue against the so-called "jehadi mentality". The schisms papered over, the BJP unanimously resolved to turn down Modi's resignation and ordained that he seek a fresh mandate on the strength of his blood-sodden record.

When Lyngdoh issued his famous dissent against the Modi government's decision to hold early elections after the dissolution of the State Assembly in July, Vajpayee was again disinclined to enter into a confrontation with a constitutional body's understanding of its responsibilities. It was once again the rootless zealots who coaxed him into referring the issue to the Supreme Court for an advisory opinion.

THE E.C. order asserted the primacy of Article 324 of the Constitution — on the E.C.'s power to do everything necessary to ensure free and fair elections — over Article 174, which stipulated that no more than six months should lapse between two successive sittings of the State Assembly.

Under Article 174, a new State Assembly should have been in place in Gujarat by October 3. But the E.C. determined that this was not feasible given the troubled communal situation in the State. It then proposed, without quite asserting it as a matter of law, that in case of a conflict between Articles 174 and 324, the option of imposing President's Rule under Article 356 could be considered.

The Vajpayee government's petition before the Supreme Court asked for an advisory opinion on this matter. The Supreme Court, in turn, decreed that Article 174 did not apply in cases where the State Assembly was dissolved.

Rather, the six-month limit for a sitting of the State Assembly would only apply from the date of dissolution.

Perceptive observers pointed out that the Supreme Court ruling missed the crucial question of accountability: how long could a State government remain in authority without facing a session of the State Assembly? But in tacitly conceding that there was no constitutional impropriety in Modi remaining Chief Minister beyond October 3, the apex court strengthened the case of the E.C. It rendered Modi's position somewhat more tenuous than that of an ordinary caretaker Chief Minister and perhaps emboldened the administration, which had been cowed down by the violence in the State, into asserting its autonomy once again.

With the announcement of the election schedule, the E.C. decreed that the Model Code of Conduct (MCC) for the guidance of candidates and political parties was in force. In the circumstances, by convention rather than law, the E.C. has broad-ranging powers, subject to final judicial certification, to determine when conditions are not appropriate for the conduct of free and fair elections. If Lyngdoh and his colleagues in the E.C. had, in exercise of this power, decreed a ban on the Jan Jagruti Yatra, they would have been well within their constitutional powers. But in a deliberate effort to convey the impression of impartiality and objectivity, the E.C. chose to act after it had received complaints from a number of political parties and non-governmental organisations. With meticulous concern for the autonomy of various entities involved in the decision, it asked the Gujarat government for its assessment of the situation.

The E.C.'s official note of November 13 makes it clear that the decision to proscribe the VHP yatra was based in full upon inputs on the security situation received from the State government. In terms of this assessment, the E.C. note points out, there was "every likelihood of communal tensions and passions getting exacerbated by the proposed yatra being planned by the VHP". The State government had reportedly pointed out that the possibilities of a serious "law and order situation arising in the wake of the yatra could not be ruled out".

Critically, the Lyngdoh effect has induced a State administration that is still nominally headed by Modi, to issue a scrupulously fair and objective assessment. This is partly on account of the moral sanctity that the MCC has come to enjoy and the E.C.'s own firmly stated determination to enforce it. Also, Lyngdoh's refusal to play by the script authored by Modi and go as far as to recommend President's Rule if an irresoluble constitutional conundrum arose, emboldened the State administration to assert its own judgment, independent of the Chief Minister's political compulsions. In arriving at this decision, the three-member E.C. had spent two days studying the situation in Gujarat and Lyngdoh in particular had been unsparing in his attitude towards officials who had overlooked their responsibilities to the people in deference to the political masters.

In its note of November 13, the E.C. explained the principle behind its decision to ban the VHP yatra and put the State administration on notice of the strict standards of fairness and impartiality it would apply: "The Commission would, in fact, go so far as to state that any activity which may aggravate existing differences or create mutual hatred, disharmony, ill-will or cause tension between different castes and communities, religious or linguistic, will not only vitiate the election process and tarnish the fair democratic traditions of the country, but will also seriously jeopardise the law and order situation conducive for the conduct of free and fair elections in the State. The maintenance of law and order is the responsibility of the State government and the Commission expects the State administration to take all such measures under the existing laws as are considered appropriate for maintaining an atmosphere conducive for conduct of peaceful, free and fair poll even during the run up period to the elections."

Since the stormy tenure of T.N. Seshan as CEC, there has been a convention of caretaker administrations being kept under close watch to see that they do not misuse executive powers for electoral advantage. M.S. Gill, who succeeded Seshan, sought to write this principle into the statute books, suggesting at various occasions that States headed into elections should be placed under President's Rule to ensure the neutrality of the administration. Without the abrasiveness of Seshan or the legal punctiliousness of Gill, Lyngdoh has been seeking the neutrality of the State administration through strict enforcement of the MCC and diligent supervision of its functioning.

Indeed, right from October 28, when the election schedule was announced, the E.C. has kept up pressure on the Gujarat government to stick to the MCC in every respect. On November 1, it directed the administration to remove hoardings and posters that blazoned the strident communalist rhetoric of the VHP and its associates. Some of these had been put up by Modi's camp-followers prior to the announcement of elections as a means of circumventing the MCC. But the E.C. would have none of this, making it clear to the administration that they would have to be removed nonetheless since they constituted an unacceptable electoral campaign strategy with the potential to cause serious detriment to the religious minorities.

The E.C. has also instructed the State administration to inquire into complaints that a number of hoardings depicting the achievements of the Modi government were put up at the cost of the state exchequer. It has demanded that strict action be initiated against those responsible. To ensure proper supervision and conduct of the electoral process, the E.C. — with Lyngdoh's close personal involvement — has sent a large number of senior officials to Gujarat as observers.

On November 2, the E.C. asked for compliance reports from the State government on its directive to transfer police officers who had served in a particular district or police station for more than four years. These transfers were deemed necessary to eliminate the possibility of bias on the part of officials who may have developed intimate ties with local interest groups through prolonged tenures in a single station.

All these steps flowed from the factors perceived as essential to the conduct of elections, as embodied in the MCC. The first entry in the MCC says that no party or candidate shall indulge in activity that may aggravate existing differences or create mutual hatred or cause tension between castes and communities. The third says that there shall be no appeal to caste or communal emotions for securing votes; that places of worship shall not be used as forums for electoral propaganda. Another says that criticism of other political parties shall be confined to policies and programmes, and that the personal life of individuals engaged in politics, when irrelevant to their public conduct, shall not be the subject of electoral propaganda.

Anybody who has witnessed the recent conduct of the BJP-VHP combine in Gujarat would be convinced that all these codes have been violated with impunity. And everybody who has longed for a return to sanity and decency would have ample reason to feel thankful for the Lyngdoh effect. It is a long overdue antidote that the body politic had been crying out for, infected as it was by the VHP virus.

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