The new Chief Election Commissioner, J.M. Lyngdoh, starts off on a quiet note.
IF T.N. Seshan, during his term (1990-96) as the Chief Election Commissioner (CEC), had projected an independent role of activism for the Election Commission, his successor, M.S. Gill (1996-2001), sought to root this new-found role in consensus and democratic decision-making within the Commission. Both Seshan and Gill had a penchant for the public eye. In Seshan's case, showing scant respect for the other two Election Commissioners (E.Cs), Gill and G.V.G. Krishnamurthy, he drew public attention through his controversial decisions and abrasiveness. Gill had a different style. He often sought out members of the press to explain the Commission's stand on various issues, though in the process he sought to sell his own ideas too. After Krishnamurthy retired in 1998, Gill, as the CEC, acted as the Commission's sole voice to defend its omissions and commissions, while the other two Commissioners, J.M. Lyngdoh and T.S. Krishnamurthy, opted to keep a low profile.
With the elevation of Lyngdoh as the CEC on June 13 (his appointment was notified by the government well in advance, on May 18, in recognition of the principle of seniority), following Gill's retirement, the era of individual CECs hogging the limelight for the Commission's work may well be over. Lyngdoh made this clear at a press conference, when he introduced to the media the new Election Commissioner and colleague, B.B. Tandon, who was earlier Secretary, Ministry of Personnel. The former Indian Administrative Service officer hailing from Meghalaya explained that he considered himself as a representative of the Commission, and not as a separate entity, and that the Commission consisted of, besides the three Commissioners, a number of others who were involved in its decision-making process.
Unlike Seshan and Gill, Lyngdoh and the other two E.Cs, T.S. Krishnamurthy and Tandon, seem to keep a distance from the media, and shun any publicity for themselves - perhaps for fear of getting into any controversy. However, it is clear that sooner or later the three would have to establish a meaningful relationship with the media. Gill also had problems of adjustment with one of the Commissioners, G.V.G. Krishnamurthy, who was a contender for the CEC's post after Seshan's retirement. But they buried the hatchet soon, and Krishnamurthy retired.
Gill said at his last media conference as the CEC on June 12: "It was a challenge to run the three-member Commission harmoniously and unanimously. The Commission was always united, unanimous and collective. It will continue to be very much so. Institutions survive while individuals pass on."
Gill had been a proponent of the concept of a three-member Election Comm-ission, and he was opposed to increasing the number beyond three. The idea behind having a three-member Commission was to ensure checks and balances in its functioning. (It was the controversial style of functioning of Seshan as a single-member Election Commissioner that led to the birth of a three-member Election Commission.) It should be said to the credit of Gill that the three-member Commission he headed was largely free from dissension and could well be a role-model for future Election Commissions.
Lyngdoh's term will run up to February 2004, after a tenure lasting less than three years. (The CECs' term is for five years, or until the completion of 65 years of age, whichever is earlier.) Lyngdoh's term as the CEC, though relatively short, promises to be eventful, with elections to several Legislative Assemblies due to take place during the period. Uttar Pradesh, Uttaranchal and Punjab top the list. Lyngdoh may not have to hold an election to the Lok Sabha if the present House, constituted in October 1999, completes its five-year term.
At his first press conference as the CEC, Lyngdoh indicated that delimitation of constituencies in Uttar Pradesh and the new State of Uttaranchal, carved out of the former, tops the Commission's priorities. He said that elections in the two States could come earlier than expected. The term of the Uttar Pradesh and Uttaranchal Assemblies (the latter was constituted when the State was born last year, with those elected to the U.P. Assembly from the Uttaranchal region as members) will expire in March 2002, if five years are reckoned from the first sitting of the U.P. Assembly. The first sitting was held six months after the elections in October 1996, the gap having been caused by the delay in the formation of a government. Such a reckoning of the life of the House is in keeping with the principles laid down by the judiciary, under Article 172(1) of the Constitution. But there is also a view that the Assembly's term expires in October 2001 on completion of five years from its constitution following elections in October 1996. the delimitation of constituencies has significance for Uttaranchal, which now has only 22 Assembly constituencies. An increase in the strength of the Assembly to 70 has been suggested.
The progress with regard to supplying photo identity cards to all voters has been painfully slow. According to Lyngdoh, in Uttar Pradesh and Uttaranchal only 50 per cent of the work has been completed, against 70 per cent in Punjab. However, it should be said to the Commission's credit that the use of photo identity cards (a scheme launched during Seshan's tenure) and electronic voting machines has gained widespread popularity in recent years, with people accepting the two concepts as being necessary reforms. In the four States which went to the polls recently, there was no challenge to the Commission's insistence on voters establishing their identity through either photo identity cards or some other means of proof. The Commission did not seek to identify voters thus in Assam in view of the prevailing political conditions in the State. The Election Commission is under compulsion to treat Assam and Jammu and Kashmir differently from the rest of the country on this matter
WITH electoral battles in the States becoming increasingly aggressive, the Election Commission's role as an impartial umpire in holding elections will be growingly on test. During the recent elections in West Bengal, Gill came under attack from Trinamul Congress leader Mamata Banerjee for allegedly ignoring her complaints against the Left Front government. The Election Commission considered the attack on Gill as an attack on itself. Gill, however, said that he had no problems with Mamata Banerjee and that it was but natural that in a democracy the disgruntled would throw some rocks at the Election Commission. The system, he said, was stable enough to enable the Commission to bear such attacks.
Such attacks on the Election Commission, however, seem to be isolated instances. Most political parties have, in fact, willingly accepted the Commission's role in seeking to streamline the electoral system. The Commission, for instance, amended the Symbols Order to correct certain aberrations in the matter of granting recognition to political parties on the basis of their past electoral performance. It did so without consulting the political parties, but the step was by and large welcomed.
Again, the Commission's controversial Order of August 28, 1997 with regard to the "criminalisation of politics and participation of criminals in the electoral process as candidates...", issued to Chief Electoral Officers and Returning Officers directing them to stop those convicted by a trial court from contesting elections under Section 8 of the Representation of the People Act, 1951, "irrespective of whether the convicted person is released on bail or not during the pendency of appeal" was a result of the Commission's internal deliberations. The Commission did not find it necessary to consult political parties or gauge public opinion before issuing the circular, which has a bearing on the nature of the electoral contests, besides raising questions of law. It might have assumed that such a step could not have been carried through if it were to consult political parties, but this appears to be a major lapse considering the fact that the Commission under Gill had valued consultation with political parties on any reform proposal.