BOOK REVIEW

Lyngdoh's truth

CHRONICLE OF AN IMPOSSIBLE ELECTION — The Election Commission and the 2002 Jammu and Kashmir Assembly Elections: James Michael Lyngdoh; Penguin Books India Pvt. Ltd., 11, Community Centre, Panchsheel Park, New Delhi-110017.

Rs. 395.

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, 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.

MUKUND PADMANABHAN

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