- As Chief Election Commissioner, Lyngdoh bore the huge responsibility of ensuring that India’s important federal and state elections were well organized, free, and fair. Not a small task given the subcontinent’s 650 million voters and, in recent times, rising religious fundamentalism and raging communal hatreds.
- Lyngdoh boldly confronted crises in two of India’s most troubled states: in Jammu-Kashmir and in Gujarat. In the former, where India was locked in a standoff with Pakistan and local secessionists, Lyngdoh updated and verified the election rolls, introduced voter identity cards, and heightened election security so people could “vote fearlessly.” in Gujarat where Hindus were incited against the state’s Muslims, torching their homes and neighborhoods, the Hindu-ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) dissolved the state government and called for elections.
- The RMAF board of trustees recognizes “his convincing validation of free and fair elections as the foundation and best hope of secular democracy in strife-torn India.”
In India, democracy took root despite extreme ethnic diversity and deep social cleavages. This remarkable success reflects the profound commitment of India’s founders to elected government. It also reflects the wisdom of India’s constitution, which in providing for elections also provides for a powerful nonpartisan commission to conduct them. It falls to the Election Commission of India to ensure that India’s important federal and state elections are well organized, free, and fair. This is no small task given the subcontinent’s 650 million voters and, these days, rising religious fundamentalism and raging communal hatreds. This immense and elaborate responsibility now rests on the shoulders of Chief Election Commissioner James Michael Lyngdoh.
Of Khasi tribal origin, Lyngdoh hails from the extreme northeastern corner of India. Imbibing moral rectitude from his father, a district judge, Lyngdoh completed his education in Delhi and entered the elite Indian Administrative Service when he was twenty-two. He quickly became known for probity and toughness and for favoring the underdog against politicians and the local rich. In one early post, 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, Cabinet Secretariat, Government of India. In 1997, the president named Lyngdoh one of India’s three election commissioners. By 2001 he was chief.
Lyngdoh soon faced crises in two of India’s most troubled states. In Jammu-Kashmir, where India was locked in a potentially explosive standoff with Pakistan and local secessionists, state elections fell due in 2002. Many people doubted that they could be conducted credibly. Lyngdoh thought otherwise. Pushing ahead despite a vicious cross-border assassination campaign and a boycott, he updated and verified the election rolls, introduced voter identity cards, and added a thousand new voting sites. He recruited nonpartisan poll officers for every polling station. And after warning the army to stand clear, he heightened election security by mobilizing the local police and paramilitary forces from outside the state. Then he urged the people “to vote fearlessly.” Forty-four percent did so. Even Lyngdoh’s critics acknowledged that the polling had been fair, causing many in India to seize this triumph of “ballots over bullets” as a sign that the long-festering crisis of Jammu-Kashmir might yet be resolved peacefully.
Meanwhile, stirred by a terrorist attack in late February killing fifty-eight Hindu pilgrims, Hindus in Gujarat were slaughtering hundreds of the state’s Muslims and torching their homes and neighborhoods. When the Hindu ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) dissolved the state government and called for elections amid the sectarian carnage, Lyngdoh used his authority to say no. Citing the large number of displaced persons and the pervasive atmosphere of fear in Gujarat, he postponed the elections. Although vilified for doing so, he stood his ground and carefully prepared for the delayed polls. He insisted, for example, that local officials and police who had been complicit in the anti-Muslim pogrom be transferred; he outlawed campaign activities that inflamed communal passions; and he set up special polling places for Muslim refugees. In December, under tight security the people voted, some 61 percent of them! Again, even skeptics agreed that the elections were fair and credible.
Lyngdoh, sixty-four, is a modest man known for his quiet ways and his transparent integrity. As a career civil servant, he has learned that it is best to avoid the limelight and the company of politicians. His impact lies elsewhere. As one admirer puts it, “He has always been a quiet fighter from within.”
In electing James Michael Lyngdoh to receive the 2003 Ramon Magsaysay Award for Government Service, the board of trustees recognizes his convincing validation of free and fair elections as the foundation and best hope of secular democracy in strife-torn India
Your Excellency President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, trustees of the Ramon Magsaysay Award Foundation, distinguished guests, fellow awardees, ladies and gentlemen.
Managing elections in multi-religious, multi-lingual and multi-ethnic India, the largest democracy in the world with an electorate of 650 million, can never be easy. We are today witnessing a factious polity emerging after a prolonged one-party dominance where the very basic liberal and secular ethos of the country is being challenged. The incorporation of the underprivileged into the democratic process and the devolution of democracy to local bodies and villages has set in motion a heady sense of empowerment coupled with the illusion that resources are unlimited, leading to a complete dissolution of responsibility and an exercise of authority for no other reason than to loot and plunder for personal benefit. Increasing criminalization and religious and sectarian issues have overtaken sensible and reasoned politics. The common man has become the victim of manipulation, malfeasance and the injustice of politicians.
The Election Commission remains constantly at its wits’ end to neutralize all those who are inimical to the cause of good elections. We in the Commission today, fortunately, enjoy the highest public trust in the country – a trust established over a period of sustained effort and struggle. Our independence is well established and accepted. This recognition being given today reinforces our institution’s credibility even more.
The achievements of the Commission in the Jammu-Kashmir and Gujarat elections would have been incomplete without the sustained support from the people of the country. That our actions in Jammu and Kashmir and Gujarat could instill a sense of security and build the faith of an average elector in the democratic process is very satisfying. But, the real heroes are the voters of these two states who reposed abiding faith in the democratic process. They have to be acknowledged today.
There is also the Indian middle class now raising a collective voice for fairness. Their voice is being heard in the form of public interest litigations and through non-governmental organizations. It is their voice that now forces the candidates standing in the elections to declare their assets and credentials, including their criminal past. And this is making a difference in the Indian electoral scenario.
The maturity of the media, particularly the Indian electronic media, was very visible in the two elections. Their aggressive, pervasive and intrusive presence made every level of election authority subject to immediate scrutiny. Because of this, the media helped to create an environment where transgressions became visible and, therefore, difficult to suppress. They were able to not only reflect the expectations and sentiments of the people but also to make a significant contribution by their persistence to pursue the truth.
India has established its democratic credentials, but is still far from being perfect. We have very many unfinished tasks. I am grateful to all those who have stood by us and continue to support us in our endeavours.
It is an honour for me to receive the 2003 Ramon Magsaysay Award for Government Service. I accept this Award with the greatest humility and utmost gratitude. I thank the Ramon Magsaysay Award Foundation for bestowing this honour on me.
Thank you all.
James Michael Lyngdoh knows India’s politicians almost too well. A civil servant all his working life, he has had uncomfortable brushes with chief ministers and other elected officials, while battling drought, floods, and enraged landlords as a member of the elite Indian Administrative Service (IAS). His contacts with politicians increased a hundredfold when he became one of India’s three election commissioners and, later, chief of the Election Commission itself.
So, what does he think of the men and women who aspire to run his country? The forthright Lyngdoh does not mince words. Many of them are “scum,” he says. “The politician has become a much worse person than he used to be. At Independence, most of the parliamentarians were professionals—doctors, engineers. Today, they are mostly people who can’t get a job anywhere. They invest in elections [because they know] they’re going to rake in much more.”
Forewarned by his experiences as India’s elections chief, Lyngdoh championed moves initiated by civil society for candidates to disclose their criminal records, make public their assets and liabilities, and provide information about their educational attainment. He supported a project to use electronic voting machines across the country. And he pushed ahead with elections in two of India’s most troubled states. Even Lyngdoh’s harshest critics admit that the 2002 polls in strife-torn Jammu and Kashmir and Gujarat were credible and fair. The achievement led many in India to hope that ballots may yet triumph over bullets.
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