The Legacy of a Different CEC: When J.M. Lyngdoh Stood up to Modi

With the EC under a cloud of suspicion, it is worth recalling that Lyngdoh did not budge when pressured to hold elections after the Gujarat violence of 2002.

Barring one dissenting note, the three-member Election Commission (EC) has pronounced Prime Minister Narendra Modi and BJP president Amit Shah ‘not guilty’ in all five cases accusing them of violating the model code of conduct (MCC). Four of the five complaints have been against the prime minister for invoking religion and the army in his appeal for votes.

Even as it has generously exonerated the two top leaders, the EC has used the same MCC to pull up opposition leaders like Mayawati and Azam Khan and also lesser BJP leaders like Maneka Gandhi, Pragya Singh Thakur and Yogi Adityanath.

The anomalies in the EC’s verdicts suggest its determined unwillingness to apply the code to India’s two most powerful politicians. Whether it has to do with Modi’s polarising majority-minority speeches in Wardha on April 1, or his invocation of Pulwama and Balakot later at the Latur and Chitradurga rallies on April 9, the content of these speeches clearly breached the MCC. That Ashok Lavasa, one of the election commissioners, dissented with the majority decision, is further proof of this breach.  

At a time when the EC has come under a cloud of suspicion, it is worth recalling the strikingly different legacy left by an earlier chief election commissioner, J.M. Lyngdoh.

Lyngdoh presided over the institution from June 2001 to February 2004, a turbulent time in Indian politics.  Interestingly, like the present CEC Sunil Arora, Lyngdoh, too, then had to deal with Narendra Modi. In the aftermath of the Gujarat violence in 2002, Modi, who was then Gujarat’s chief minister, ran into trouble with the EC.

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On July 19, 2002, Modi prematurely dissolved the Gujarat assembly, creating a constitutional crisis. In the ordinary course of things, state elections were due in February 2003. Modi, presumably, calculated that the sharp Hindu-Muslim polarisation that split Gujarat following the violence would maximise the BJP’s electoral advantage. The chief minister went all out to put pressure on the EC, and particularly, on CEC Lyngdoh. Modi wanted the EC to schedule the assembly polls by October 2, 2002.

Thousands of riots victims were living in rehabilitation camps and Gujarat was still a long way from returning to normalcy. In such a situation, Lyngdoh, aided by  opposition and civil society members, continued to hold out against Modi. To assess the ground situation, the CEC went to Gujarat with a full EC team. Expressing dissatisfaction with the state government’s handling of the crisis, the EC on August 16, 2002 said it would be impossible to hold polls by October.

A 41-page EC report said:

The law and order situation in the state is still far from normal. The wounds of the communal divide following the riots have not yet healed. The slow progress in relief and rehabilitation work on the one hand and non-arrest and non-punishment of the guilty on the other have hampered the process of normalcy returning to the state, with the victims carrying the fear and anxiety of another backlash.

Electoral rolls were also not ready and the poll machinery needed further beefing up, the commission stressed.

In a bid to overturn the EC’s decision, the BJP and Modi sought shelter in legal nitpicking. Two articles of the Constitution – Articles 174 and 324 – came into contention. Article 174 required assembly polls to take place within six months of the date of the dissolved assembly. The Gujarat assembly last met on March 3. Its dissolution was announced on July 19.

Article 324, on the other hand, upheld the EC’s supremacy in the “superintendence, direction and control of the preparation of the electoral rolls for, and the conduct of, all elections to Parliament and to the Legislature of every State and of elections to the offices of President and Vice President.”

With Lyngdoh refusing to yield, the then BJP-led NDA government at the Centre made a three-point reference to President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam. The presidential reference was sent to the Supreme Court, seeking its advice on the EC’s decision.

In response, the Supreme Court on September 2, 2002, said that it would not interfere with the EC’s order on deferring the Gujarat polls. “We are proceeding on the assumption that whatever that had been stated by the Election Commission on factual aspects is correct. We are not going to say that the commission should not have made its assessment,” said the bench.

The Supreme Court judges were of the view that the “six months within which elections were to be held was from the date of dissolution of the assembly; and, not from the earlier date of the dead assembly’s last session. Article 174 applied to ‘live’ and not ‘dissolved’ assemblies,” wrote Rajeev Dhavan in The Hindu.

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The extent of the Lyngdoh-Modi strain became yet again evident when, at a public rally near Vadodara in August 2002, Modi took a dig at Lyngdoh’s Christian religion. “Some journalists asked me recently, ‘Has James Michael Lyngdoh come from Italy?’,” Modi ‘joked’, spelling out the CEC’s full name. “I said, I don’t have his janam patri, I will have to ask Rajiv Gandhi. Then the journalists said, ‘Do they (Lyngdoh and Sonia) meet in church?’ I replied, ‘Maybe they do’.”

Modi’s barbs against the CEC drew a note of censure from the then Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee. Pointing out that all constitutional authorities must be respected, Vajpayee said, “It must be recognised by one and all that maturity of our democracy lies in all its institutions working within their constitutional limits, respecting each other’s domain and maintaining proper balance.”

Till not so long ago, the Election Commission was regarded as one of the few institutions that was doing its job with rigour and fairness. The process of cleaning up the electoral system began with T.N. Seshan, the tenth CEC, who helmed the commission from 1990 to 1996. It was during his tenure that the MCC began to be strictly applied to all political parties and politicians.

Both Seshan and Lyngdoh have established a distinguished place for themselves in the institution’s history. Today, their legacy lies in a shambles.