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Chronicles of controversies foretold

Aditi Phadnis  |  New Delhi 

Would India have had a Kashmir problem if elections in Kashmir had not been tampered with in the past?
This is the broad context of the book by J M Lyngdoh, former Chief Election Commissioner of India, that examines the complicated relationship between the executive, politicians and the Election Commission of India (ECI), and examines the two most famous elections he conducted, to the Gujarat Vidhan Sabha and Jammu and Kashmir assembly, both in 2002.
Lyngdoh's version of recent history is important because he has been witness to some tumultuous times in Nirvachan Sadan. The first few chapters in his book relate to the background and history of Kashmir and the legal and constitutional anomalies in relation to issues of sovereignty.
The next few relate to the Election Commission itself and its struggle over the decades to free itself from the apron strings of the government in power. The third section of the book is about the Gujarat and Kashmir elections and the problems Lyngdoh faced.
Lyngdoh presents himself as not unsympathetic to the Kashmiris. Unlike a lot of "Indians" he doesn't believe Kashmiri Muslims have been pampered and mollycoddled in a bid to keep them in India.
He has, however, some acerbic comments about Kashmiri Hindus, their unwillingness to go back to the Valley, yet so inseparably attached to their native place that they were not agreeable to being enrolled for voting where they were.
The issue of Kashmiri Hindus was a relatively small problem in that election, which became an international event. Lyngdoh gives an entertaining account of subtle and not-so-subtle diplomacy by him and the Commission that staved off the appointment of Special (International) Observers, while at the same time, turning the presence of diplomats from various missions to "observe" the J&K elections, to India's advantage.
The book records how in reply to a question on international observers for the Kashmir election, he said: "In this day and age, there is no question of the white man coming to observe what the native is doing ... The white man does not determine what the coloured man does and whether he is doing it right or wrong" and got plaudits from as unlikely a quarter as the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh.
The president of the RSS, K Sudershan, said he appreciated that Lyngdoh was a "true patriot". Lyngdoh's account of the Election Commissioner's working under its arguably most famous chief, T N Seshan, and the subsequent tussle for power in ECI, is rivetting and reveals a host of new facts.
Till the appointment of R V S Peri Sastry, Chief Election Commissioners were told by the government when to hold elections. The system broke down when Peri Sastry, generally considered "compliant" (one newspaper that now prides itself on journalism of courage, ran story after banner story on how Peri Sastry had become an agent of the government and was pretty much doing as instructed by the Rajiv Gandhi government, to the extent that an RAX phone had been installed in his room), refused to do as directed, and scheduled the Haryana assembly elections in 1987 before presidential elections that took place in the same year.
We now learn how his personal records at the ministry of law (where he had been secretary) were scrutinised and his income and property tax returns studied for possible irregularities and deficiencies. Peri Sastry resisted and died in harness, strong and not weakened.
Lyngdoh's account of the Seshan years in the Election Commission is also interesting. Seshan won the battle for the ECI where pomp, circumstance and finance were concerned. But the backlash from the executive was not long in coming.
Two more commissioners were appointed""M S Gill and G V G Krishnamurthy""as a means to dilute his power and Seshan did his best not to recognise them but was bested by the Supreme Court. Suddenly the institution was a shadow of itself, given the brilliance of the personalities that occupied it.
Lyngdoh's efforts to restore balance""and the morale""in the ECI met with some success. He records with the contribution of his colleagues in holding the Kashmir elections, for which preparations began from 2001. Ranging from the use of electronic voting machines in Kashmir, to ballot papers and voting instructions that had to be in Urdu, to updating electoral rolls""at every stage, there were problems.
The timing of the elections was contested from the word "go". Add to this the role of shadowy paramilitary and police forces like the Special Operations Group and the Special Task Force (STF), all of it fell in the lap of the Election Commission. If for no reason, this book must be read to understand the administrative detail that conducting elections in Kashmir entails.
The Gujarat elections, held in the shadow of the Godhra massacre and the subsequent riots, was another landmark in Lyngdoh's career. He doesn't say this outright but from his general approval of the audio-visual media's conduct, it appears that he believes the success of the Gujarat elections owes a great deal to exposure of his remarks on TV""such as telling the district administration near Best Bakery that he thought they were a bunch of jokers when they tried to mislead him about conditions in that part of the town. It sounded great. But did it have to be said on TV?
In Gujarat the political refrain was: when you can hold elections in Kashmir, why can't you do the same in Gujarat ? Lyngdoh disagreed and took on the central government and Arun Jaitely as well as Narendra Modi, who took to pronouncing his name at all public meetings in menacing accents. How much Lyngdoh's stance on political and administrative issues helped fair elections in Gujarat is a matter of opinion.
This book must be read not just to understand contemporary history but also to savour Lyngdoh's sardonic humour. I also learnt a new word""proemial""that means "beginning" or "prelude".
Chronicle of an impossible election
James Michael Lyngdoh
Penguin Viking
Pages: 254, Price: Rs 350

First Published: Wed, August 25 2004. 00:00 IST