Chronicle of an Impossible Election
After completing his Senior Cambridge in St Edmund’s School, James Michael Lyngdoh joined St Stephen’s College Delhi. Lyngdoh entered the IAS, when he was twenty-two. Probity and toughness became the hallmarks of his style of administration. He favored the underdog against politicians and the local rich. In one early posting, 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 Secretary, Coordination and Public Grievances, Government of India.
In 1997, the president named James Lyngdoh one of India’s three election commissioners. By 2001 he was made the Chief Election Officer. James Lyngdoh soon faced crises in two of India’s most troubled states, Gujarat and Jammu and Kashmir. Both these crises are touched upon in his book.
He was awarded the Ramon Magsaysay Award for Government Service in 2003.
Chronicle of an Impossible Election
A book of this kind is, at the very least, a useful chronicle of the Jammu and Kashmir elections, 2002,’ says J.M. Lyngdoh in his preface. It is a modest prelude to his account of a landmark event.
The 2002 assembly elections in Jammu and Kashmir were proposed to be held against near impossible odds — a volatile situation along the LoC with Pakistan, stepped up militant attacks within the state, and threats to candidates that disrupted normal election processes. To add to the logistics of security was the task of updating electoral rolls — all 351,850 pages of them — in Urdu. And at the heart of it all was the ordinary Kashmiri’s cynicism about any elections conducted in the state being free and fair, based on their experiences in the past. At stake, therefore, was the credibility of the Election Commission, and the democratic process itself.
Despite all the doubts, the outcome was an election which was acknowledged fair, even by a vigilant media that had been keeping a close watch on events. In his understated yet compelling style, J.M. Lyngdoh recounts how it was done, and explains the complex circumstances surrounding the history of elections in the state. In telling the riveting story, Chronicle of an Impossible Election also gives a ringside view of the functioning of the Election Commission, one of the great democratic institutions of the country, and how it has evolved as a guardian of fair play in elections. It is a story that every voter should know.
Review by MUKUND PADMANABHAN
FIRST THINGS first. This book is much more than a mere account of the 2002 Jammu and Kashmir Assembly poll. The chronicle of this “impossible” election figures only in the second half of this slim volume, but even here the Gujarat election, held in the same year, competes for space.
As for the first half, the book begins with a potted history of Jammu and Kashmir, but suddenly and quite unexpectedly shifts narrative gear. It digresses into relating the story of the evolution of the Election Commission (E.C.) — from a body that was once subservient to the Executive to one that has slowly acquired a full-fledged autonomy.
The unusual structure of the book is perhaps a result of Lyngdoh’s belief that the 2002 Jammu and Kashmir Assembly election — which was remarkably free and fair — must be understood in the context of the growing independence and assertiveness of the E.C. The somewhat misleading title is easier to explain. The Jammu and Kashmir election was easily the highpoint of Lyngdoh’s unbending and combative tenure as Chief Election Commissioner (CEC) — “a landmark event” as the blurb on the book jacket declares.
In the public mind, the first stirrings of defiance — or more accurately assertiveness — in the E.C. began with T.N. Seshan. Lyngdoh takes this story back much earlier. He begins in 1981 when Sham Lal Shakdher, then CEC, resisted pressure from the Congress Government not to hold the Garwhal Lok Sabha by-election and then declared a repoll of the entire constituency when he found substance in the complaints of massive rigging. It was also Shakdher who made the first move to use electronic voting machines (EVMs), an experiment that faced a plethora of obstacles before its eventual acceptance.
The story of defiance flows from then on and there was no looking back after the E.C. survived the Government’s crude attempt to rein in Peri Sastri in 1989. In Lyngdoh’s account, the E.C.’s independence was won bit by bit — with the aid of novel decisions (introduction of EVMs and model code of conduct) and court judgments, which have strengthened the autonomy of this constitutional body in taking decisions that are vital for the conduct of free and fair elections. It was not something that was won, as the press often assumes, by the mere charisma or drive of one CEC or the other.
Moving to Jammu and Kashmir election, Lyngdoh observes it was “a complex spider’s web” — one that did not begin with the announcement of the election or end with the counting. Among other things, the strands involved included computerisation and updating the electoral rolls in Urdu — a challenge that Lyngdoh recounts in some detail. Tensions across the border, the threat of terrorism, fractious political parties and — perhaps, just as importantly — a pervasive cynicism about the possibility of a free and fair election were only some of the other challenges that the E.C. had to contend with.
As it turned out (and as the results clearly underlined) the 2002 poll was the fairest since the one in 1977; no mean achievement.
The credit for this of course must primarily go to the E.C. But Lyngdoh fails to adequately acknowledge another quarter — Atal Bihari Vajpayee. In fact, he records his unease and embarrassment because of the former Prime Minister’s promise of a free and fair election on the somewhat technical ground that this is something that can be guaranteed only by the Commission.
But as Lyngdoh himself is aware, a string of elections in Jammu and Kashmir has suffered because of the Centre’s manipulative tactics. If Morarji Desai can be credited for the 1977 election, then it would seem reasonable to pay some due to Vajpayee’s commitment to making the 2002 poll what it was.
On Gujarat poll
On Gujarat, where the Assembly was prematurely dissolved a little after the communal carnage, Lyngdoh is at pains to explain why he deferred holding the poll until after six months of the dissolution. The E.C. had taken the view that Article 174 (which mandates that Legislative Assemblies should be convened every six months) applies in all cases; that is to existing Assemblies and those dissolved prematurely.
However, it held that Article 174 must give way to Article 324 (which guarantees free and fair elections) and that, in the event this leads to a breach of the six-month rule, the Centre could avert a constitutional crisis by declaring President’s rule (invoking Article 356).
The E.C.’s decision was referred to the Supreme Court under Article 143. Oddly, while Lyngdoh sets out the E.C.’s case in detail, he glosses over the fact that the Supreme Court strongly disagreed with this.
The Court maintained that Article 174 applied to only existing Assemblies — a position that Opposition parties such as the Congress had adopted. Moreover, it held the E.C.’s advice about the invocation of Article 356 as “gratuitous” and “misplaced”.
This omission is perhaps in keeping with the nature of the book, which is unapologetic, the work of a man who is convinced he did the right thing (which he did for the most part). But it does leave the reader with some unanswered questions and a vague feeling of discomfort.
His ill-tempered remark which referred to Gujarat officials as “a bunch of jokers” is explained away as “a censorious comment from senior to junior” and something that was thrown back at him because “everything was bugged”.
There are flashes of an overbearing self-assurance elsewhere too, but these do not detract from the essential value of the book, which is both revealing and informative.
Review by Ajit Kumar Jha
The 2002 assembly election in Jammu and Kashmir, held against a virulent threat from militancy and a volatile situation along the LoC, went a long way in expanding the democratic space in the otherwise trouble-torn Valley. Having brought a new coalition-the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) and the Congress-to power, the poll unexpectedly transformed the political culture of the state.
Any book explaining such a historic turnaround is bound to make interesting reading.Chronicle of an Impossible Election is much more. Written by former chief election commissioner James Michael Lyngdoh, the book, without sounding self-congratulatory, reveals the stellar role played by the EC in bringing about such a transformation. Coming from a civil servant who was born and brought up in the equally troubled region of the Northeast, Chronicle provides a sensitive and incredibly incisive perspective on the problem of militant separatism in Kashmir.
The 2002 elections were doubly daunting as they were conducted against the ordinary Kashmiri’s cynicism regarding any elections in the state being “free and fair”. Lyngdoh admits that except in 1977, when a credible election was held under the Janata regime, the polls in the state have been far from fair. The 1987 assembly election was the worst with reports of massive rigging by the ruling National Conference-Congress alliance.
Yet, the preparations and the outcome of 2002 atoned for the sins of 1987. In a riveting account, based on the experiences during the EC’s seven visits to the state, Lyngdoh bares it all. How the process began with the introduction of the electronic voting machines and identity cards. Then there was the role played by Noor Mohammed, then chief electoral officer of Uttar Pradesh, in the stupendous task of computerising electoral rolls in Jammu and Kashmir – all 3,51,850 pages of them in Urdu.
Touching on interesting parallels between Gujarat and Kashmir, Lyngdoh discusses how the comparative focus on the two helped the EC maintain its independence. While he is critical of Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi, Lyngdoh includes the contents of a letter by RSS chief K.S. Sudarshan calling him a “true patriot” since he rebuffed the idea of inviting foreign observers (“white men”) for the polls. He also details how Farooq Abdullah’s NC government and the state bureaucracy tried in vain to prevent the EC from carrying out electoral reforms.
If the rigged 1987 elections eroded democratic space and provided an impetus to militancy, will the credible 2002 election restore and extend that space and thereby eliminate militancy in the long run? Lyngdoh raises such questions but does not provide the answers.
Instead, he points towards a post-poll survey conducted by the Delhi based Centre for the Study of Developing Societies which showed that 80 per cent of the respondents in the Valley wanted a reunited and independent Kashmir. Clearly free and fair elections are a necessary factor in ensuring peace in Jammuand Kashmir, but by no means are they sufficient. Today, the poll partners, the PDP and the Congress, need to remember that lesson.
The Power of Democracy
Review by M.J. Vinod
The book Chronicle of an Impossible Election written by the former Chief Election Commissioner J M Lyngdoh is a chronicle of the historic assembly elections held in Jammu and Kashmir in the year 2002. The book also raises larger issues pertaining to the dynamics of the Indian electoral process, and particularly the working of the Election Commission of India.
Many factors and forces have compounded the problem in Jammu and Kashmir. ‘Political bungling’, neglect of ‘socio-economic development’ and ‘poor governance’ over the years have led to a volte-face in the psyche of the average Kashmiri. There has been little shortage of central funds to J&K. The problem has been one of the funds not really reaching the people. Corruption has been the nemesis of the state. A large part of the funds granted by the Central government has been mismanaged or diverted by the people at the helm of affairs. Hence the pace of economic development in J&K has been one of the slowest in the country.
Rise of militancy can be traced back to the 1987 elections, when the Congress Party and the National Conference joined hands. The Kashmiris felt ‘cheated’ as they did not consider the elections free and fair. Since the 1980s this was yet another watershed in the politics of Kashmir, the earlier being the dismissal of the popular government in 1984. Since then recapturing the trust of the Kashmiris has been a major challenge. The 2002 assembly elections represented a major effort to restore the ‘faith’ of the Kashmiris in a ‘democratic order.’
The 2002 elections were held against heavy odds. These included the volatile situation across the Line of Control between India and Pakistan; the threat posed by the militants who were particularly keen to disrupt the elections; and the fact that the candidates were particularly vulnerable. In such a scenario, the Election Commission faced major challenges. Among them perhaps the most problematical was the process of ‘updating’ the electoral rolls.
Added to this was the ‘extreme cynicism’ of the average Kashmiri regarding the possibility of having ‘free and fair’ elections in J&K. In a way the very credibility of the Election Commission was at stake. In spite of all these fears and doubts, the elections were conducted smoothly. The ‘fairness’ of the elections was acknowledged by the national and international media. The trials and tribulations that the Election Commission went through in holding the elections have been brought out in ample detail by Lyngdoh in his book. The book is rightly fitted The Chronicle of an Impossible Election.
The book brings into focus the debate about the role of the Election Commission in the Indian federal polity. Despite political attacks the independence and neutrality of the Commission has been largely maintained. Lyngdoh observes that the Election Commission was perilously in danger with its sudden conversion into a multi-member Commission in October 1989.
This is because it was not a multi-member commission per se which was provided for by Article 324 of the Constitution, but one that was appointed just before the Lok Sabha elections of December 1989 perhaps to dilute the then Election Commissioner Peri Sastri’s independence. It was as Lyngdoh says “clearty meant to help the Congress Party to retain power.” What happened subsequently is now well known. The book is unique in the sense that it focuses attention on the peculiar constraints encountered by the Election Commission in a volatile state like J&K.
Lyngdoh’s riveting narrative has important lessons for the contemporary times. The Chronicle of an Impossible Election is an exciting book. It deserves to be read by those interested not just in Kashmir matters, but also by those concerned about the role and working of the Election Commission. The book is well researched, well-structured and compellingly argued. It could not be more relevant to the present times.
• He remains active in public life after retirement. He is one of the members of India Rejuvenation Initiative an Indian anti-corruption organisation formed by a group of retired and serving bureaucrats.
• In February 2011, Lyngdoh, while speaking to journalists after chairing a session on ‘Free & Fair Elections – The Soul of Democracy’, said that state funding of elections is ‘useless’ and that a proportionate representation system where the electoral fight takes place between parties and not candidates would be more appropriate since it would involve significantly less expenditure. In June 2012, Lyngdoh, while addressing a round table on “Indian Democracy & Elections – What is to be done?”, said that a proportional representation system for at least 50 percent of the seats of the legislatures would reduce electoral malpractices. He explained that political parties would reduce the need to spend huge amounts of funds on elections of individuals if the switch to proportional representation is made. He opined that the Election Commission should take charge of even the internal elections of political parties since in his opinion that is the only way to ensure democracy
ARTICLES about James M Lyngdoh
J.M. Lyngdoh digs Shakespeare, dogs, cricket and cars
Article by SOUVIK CHOWDHURY
AT THE end of another hectic day, James Michael Lyngdoh seated on a plastic chair is rubbing his bi-focals, slightly drained after a series of television interviews at his 2200-square feet bungalow. The sight provides for an incongruous one, there is not a single soul in sight, forget neighbours – Lyngdoh’s address is distant from civilization. It takes a tiring one-and-half-hour dusty drive to reach his home in Pragati Resorts near Chevalla village – 47 kilometres west, off Hyderabad.
What makes J.M. Lyngdoh such a sought-after figure?
The man is stunningly different and endlessly fascinating. His magnetic character, personality and upright beliefs had the entire nation taking note of this five-and-half-foot power-packed steel frame when he held office as the Chief Election Commissioner. Now, that he’s given up work, he continues to attract even more attention: people wait on him wanting to know why he’s chosen Hyderabad as his abode and why a village, why such a desolate setting, so on and so forth. A man-about-town, J.M. Lyngdoh never ceases to inspire questions. Against his wishes the former CEC has attained iconic status – for speaking his mind, for his probity, integrity and fearless frankness.
“That I appeared honest was a matter of policy when I was in office, inherently I may not be so,” guffaws Lyngdoh, exposing four golden-coloured teeth. Are they made of gold? “The dentist told me so,” he smiles. Reticent, he is but once he opens up, the 65-year old bureaucrat displays a child-like enthusiasm talking about dogs, cars, cricket and insects!
Of Khasi tribal origin, Lyngdoh hails from Meghalaya. (His ancestors were Bengali, and from Dhaka). Imbibing moral values from his father, a district judge – the late Cromelyn Lyngdoh, James lived a happy-go-lucky life chasing butterflies and playing cricket – free from all ambitions till he completed his schooling from St. Edmund’s, Shillong.
“My teeth-breaking fast bowling was widely feared and respected”, the ex-election commissioner states, acknowledging his cricketing abilities. “Batting was not very strong.”
“That I sat for IAS was again, purely incidental. It was not my aspiration ,” Lyngdoh says. “After my graduation, I had a brief stint in Delhi School of Economics where Bhargav, a friend who was in IFS, filled up the Civil Services form for me. All I had to do was just put my signature down and sit for the exam.”It is given to a very few people to be as lucky to qualify for the IAS at 22, and Lyngdoh was one of them. “I am not terribly sure whether I would advise anyone to sit for IAS now, unless one does not mind being reduced to a glorified stenographer. Initially you enjoy a lot of power but as you go up the ladder your power is stripped, and you are forced to tailor your actions to suitthe needs of petty politicians.”
Lyngdoh’s caustic comments have earned him bouquets and brickbats. “No regrets,” he says dispassionately.
After winning the Ramon Magasaysay Award, the media asked him for words of advice to fellow bureaucrats and Lyngdoh said, “Keep away from politicians as they may spread cancer.”
Now, the retired bureaucrat’s pet joke is, “that was a slip of tongue. I wanted to say something worse, the closest I could get was cancer that consumes all cells.”
His extreme dislike for politicians comes clear when he says, “Politicians by appointment only, all others are welcome to my house.” It appears that building a house far from the madding crowd was a calculated decision.
Is he so sick of the system? “No,” Lyngdoh says emphatically, “All I needed was a quiet place to unwind. There is electricity, water and wilderness, what more does a retired man require? And Hyderabad is a place brimming with endless possibilities.”
A quintessential romantic, Lyngdoh is intensely in love with nature and a traveller at heart. He is doing what he always wanted to do basking in the sylvan surroundings with wife Parveen, and three dogs – Isis, Tashi and Ciraz for company. An occasional Cliff Richard-number and a certain Shakespeare play is an indulgence while sunbathing. A bottle of chilled beer is manna, then. If all this at 65 isn’t romantic, nothing is!
One room on the second floor has been made under special instructions from his wife to be converted into study. “No Vaastu here, please. I don’t buy that,” he deadpans.
Well-read Lyngdoh has an eclectic taste in books. “My favourite is Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire which I keep going back time and again whenever I feel low.” The King James Edition of the Bible is another book he reads whenever he is tired of sloppy language. “Not that I am a religious person, I am an agnostic; I go to the Bible because it is a literary masterpiece.” A good book is germane to existence and the habit of reading progressively conditions in one to continue, and continue better. Just as a great car like Ferrari lights up Lyngdoh’s face, a good book lights up his soul.
In fact, the former CEC has plans to compete a book a day in between a punishing diet and fitness schedule of an hour-long workout with the dogs. Fastidiously diet-conscious Lyngdoh considers dry chapatti an indulgent treat – that translates to the secret of his naturally athletic build.
According to him, food needs to be digested and work helps in digestion. For someone who has not missed a single working day in office in a career span of four-and-half decades, to work and keep himself occupied is second nature. “I spotted a few medicinal plants near my house the other day, maybe I will study them when I am free.”
“Work and only work can make India shine, and not a certain advertisement blitz that is slapped so unnecessarily everyday.” It’s like a curate’s egg – good only in parts. Who can keep feeling good when public money is being burnt for such utterly needless acts? Not me,” Lyngdoh maintains with the characteristic lopsided smile.
Compelling, captivating and explosive. That’s the importance of being J.M. Lyngdoh!