Free, fair and secular

Print edition : August 29, 2003

Chief Election Commissioner J.M. Lyngdoh is awarded the Magsaysay Award for government service in recognition of his contribution to strengthening the foundations of secular democracy in India.

in New Delhi

CHIEF Election Commissioner J.M. Lyngdoh has been hailed for making the Election Commission's (E.C.) constitutional obligation to hold free and fair elections its major obsession. On July 30, the Board of Trustees of the Ramon Magsaysay Award Foundation in Manila, the Philippines capital, selected Lyngdoh for this year's award for government service not just for exercising this constitutional responsibility. While announcing the award, which will be presented to him in Manila on August 31, the board underlined the significance of free and fair polls for the survival of secular democracy in India.

J.M. Lyngdoh.-P.V. SIVAKUMAR

The citation reads: "In India, democracy took root despite extreme ethnic diversity and deep social cleavages. This remarkable success reflects the profound commitment of India's founders to elected government. It also reflects the wisdom of India's Constitution, which in providing for elections also provides for a powerful non-partisan commission to conduct them. It falls to the Election Commission of India to ensure that India's important federal and state elections are well organised, free and fair. This is no small task given the subcontinent's 650 million voters and, these days, rising religious fundamentalism and raging communal hatreds. This immense and elaborate responsibility now rests on the shoulders of Chief Election Commissioner James Michael Lyngdoh."

Specifically, the board admired Lyngdoh's contribution in the holding of Assembly elections in the troubled States of Jammu and Kashmir and Gujarat in 2002. The citation says: "In Jammu-Kashmir, where India is involved in a potentially explosive standoff with Pakistan and local secessionists, State elections fell due in 2002. Many people doubted that they could be conducted credibly. Lyngdoh thought otherwise. Pushing ahead despite a vicious cross-border assassination campaign and a boycott, he updated and verified the election rolls, introduced new ID cards, and added a thousand new voting sites. He recruited non-partisan poll watchers for every polling station. And after warning the Army to stand clear, he heightened election security by mobilising the local police and paramilitary forces from outside the State. Then he urged the people `to vote fearlessly'. Forty-seven per cent did so. Even Lyngdoh's critics acknowledged that the polling had been fair, causing many in India to seize this triumph of `ballots over bullets' as a sign that the long-festering crisis of Jammu-Kashmir might yet be resolved peacefully."

Lyngdoh's handling of the Gujarat Assembly elections, in the backdrop of the Godhra riots, also elicited considerable appreciation from the board. The citation says: "When the Hindu-backed ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) dissolved the State government and called for elections amid the sectarian carnage, Lyngdoh used his authority to say no. Citing the large number of displaced persons and the pervasive atmosphere of fear in Gujarat, he postponed the elections. Although vilified for doing so, he stood his ground and carefully prepared for the delayed polls. He insisted, for example, that local officials and police who had been complicit in the anti-Muslim pogrom be transferred; he outlawed campaign activities that inflamed communal passions; and he set up special polling places for Muslim refugees. In December, under tight security the people voted, some 61 per cent of them! Again, even sceptics agreed that the elections were fair and credible."

In the context of the successful completion of elections in these two States, the board recognised his "convincing validation of free and fair elections as the foundation and best hope of secular democracy in strife-torn India". When Lyngdoh retires as the CEC on February 7, 2004, the focus will inevitably be on his unassuming personality, which deterred him from seeking publicity by virtue of his high office.

What is it that separates Lyngdoh from similar career bureaucrats? The board's tribute to his personal qualities provides the answer: "Of Khasi tribal origin, Lyngdoh hails from the extreme northeastern corner of India (Meghalaya). Imbibing moral rectitude from his father, a district judge (the late Cromelyn Lyngdoh), Lyngdoh completed his education in Delhi and entered the elite Indian Administrative Service when he was 22. He quickly became known for probity and toughness and for favouring the underdog against politicians and the local rich. In one early post (in Bihar), his principled execution of mandated land reforms so enraged landlords that he was transferred before the year was out. Similar clashes with the powers that be marked his rise in the Service. But rise he did, eventually serving as Cabinet Secretary for Coordination and Public Grievances. In 1997, the Prime Minister named Lyngdoh one of India's three Election Commissioners. By 2001 he was chief." Lyngdoh, the citation says, is a modest man known for his quiet ways and transparent integrity.

"As a career civil servant, he has learned that it is best to avoid the limelight and the company of politicians. His impact lies elsewhere. As one admirer puts it, `he has always been a quiet fighter from within'," the citation says.

Lyngdoh's typical response to the question whether the award was a vindication of his stand on Gujarat was: "Could be. Some people will see it that way." In an interview to a newspaper soon after the award was announced, Lyngdoh expressed his difficulty with the Indian concept of secularism, which is to equate all religions, rather than keeping the state and religion separate from each other. "I have still to see even parents who can treat all their children equally," he is reported to have said.

Lyngdoh is the second Chief Election Commissioner to bag this award, the first being T.N. Seshan. Although Seshan is credited with having endowed the Election Commission with an activist role, his abrasiveness invited valid criticism. The award for Lyngdoh has been well-received by all political parties, including the BJP, which was displeased by his decision to postpone the elections in Gujarat last year.

Lyngdoh's emphasis on his and the Commission's independent approach is revealed by the fact that he did not mince words while expressing his opinion on Deputy Prime Minister L.K. Advani's suggestion to hold Lok Sabha and State Assembly elections simultaneously. "It is not strictly according to the Constitution. Saving expenses is important, but it is the democratic aspect which is more important," he told a private television channel. Lyngdoh also disagreed with Advani that holding separate polls to the Lok Sabha and the State Assemblies at different times rendered governance difficult. "It has not hindered the government's decision making in all these decades," he pointed out.

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