What are the qualifications that certify a man as a Magsaysay Award winner? Is it the capacity to abuse liberally, not least the very people with whom one is supposed to be working? Is it the fact that one is constantly caught unprepared? Or is it nothing more than the quality of being able to keep the media happy? In the case of Chief Election Commissioner J M Lyngdoh I suspect it is nothing more than the last one.
I mean no disrespect to winners of the Magsaysay Award, but let us admit honestly that we Indians tend to be overly impressed by a prize or a title given by a foreigner. There is no special sanctity to such awards. Let us always remember that a Nobel Peace Prize that was not conferred upon a Mahatma Gandhi found its way to a Henry Kissinger! That said, let us return to His Majesty Lyngdoh I.
Immediately after the news broke that the governor of Andhra Pradesh had dissolved the assembly, St James Lyngdoh was asked if elections would be held immediately. Lyngdoh snapped back that this would be impossible because the work of updating the electoral rolls had not been completed, and would not be finished before February. This was met with a follow-up question: wouldn't polling in March disturb the examinations? His Majesty was all sympathy at once. The Election Commission, he said, would make every effort to see to it that no such disruption took place. But would this not throw the state's budgetary process out of whack? That, said His Majesty in icy reproof, was not the Election Commission's business.
Which leads up to one final question: just what exactly is the business of the Election Commission? I thought it was its duty under the Constitution to hold polls in a free and fair manner, and with the utmost dispatch. But His Majesty seems to take a grotesque pleasure in delaying elections -- and it always seems to be under the pretext of updating the rolls. The Election Commission, it would appear, is never prepared.
Or is it that His Majesty is secure in the fact that his abuse of politicians will be swallowed up by a media that is slavering for such juicy titbits? I hold no brief for our beloved leaders, but the sight of an unelected bureaucrat - and that is what a Chief Election Commissioner is when you come right down to it -- throwing buckets of dung over elected representatives makes one a bit queasy. Of course, it is not just politicians who have been the targets of St James Lyngdoh's wrath, his former colleagues in the civil service have had to take their fair share.
His Majesty's admirers -- and they are legion -- often rush to point out to me that such trenchant criticism of a Chief Election Commissioner is wrong because it weakens one of the officers of the Constitution. This comes dangerously close to censorship if you ask me, but let that pass. The point is that the bureaucrats and the politicians (the elected ones anyway) are as much creatures of the Constitution as is the Chief Election Commissioner. So how is it acceptable when His Majesty describes the administration in Gujarat as 'jokers' or 'buffoons' -- I forget the precise words but that was the gist of it -- but utterly wrong when one ventures to give St Lyngdoh a taste of his own medicine?
Coming back to Andhra Pradesh, His Majesty's instant rejection of the possibility of a snap poll raises an important question on the limits of the powers of the Election Commission. Does a chief executive -- prime minister or chief minister -- in command of the support of the ouse from which he draws his powers not have any right to go in for elections at a time of his choosing?
Or look at it the other way: how long can a chief minister stay in office without facing the legislature? Giving a ruling over Gujarat, the Supreme Court ruled that the six month rule -- stating that the gap between two sessions could not be more than six months -- did not apply to a House that had been dissolved. But if the Union government does not then recommend President's Rule, does it mean that a ministry can continue in office indefinitely? In the sacred name of bringing the electoral rolls up to date that is precisely what His Majesty Lyngdoh appears to have achieved.
The Election Commission's web site (http://www.eci.gov.in) consistently misspells 'by-election' as 'bye-election.' I thought this was a simple spelling mistake, but now I am not so sure. In the reign of King Lyngdoh I, the Election Commission seems more ready to bid farewell to elections than to hold them on time!