Home > News > Columnists > Swapan Dasgupta
December 30, 2003
This is the season of vigilantism. The custodians of the rule of law have ordered that our already-burdened schoolchildren must be made to study a new, compulsory subject called environment. A group of NGO self-publicists, miffed by the growing feel-good mood in the country, have decided by puncture the Shining India campaign with a public interest litigation demanding government action to protect the people from the cold. The infamous Amnesty International has seen its heart bleed for the violated human rights of murderers and extortionists of ULFA who were turfed out of Bhutan earlier this month. Most devastating of all, Chief Election Commissioner J.M. Lyngdoh, the man entrusted with the job of sanctifying Indian democracy, has equated all politicians with a cancer that is killing the country.
Lyngdoh's utterances, in an interview to Karan Thapar on BBC World, has excited the media and agitated the political class. As a person occupying a constitutional post, he is not expected to kowtow to either the government or any politician. And, to be fair, the CEC has been wildly independent. He did what he thought was right in Gujarat and delayed the election till the state was back to normal. He was quite unsparing in curbing the partisan excesses of the bureaucracy in Chhattisgarh and he was equally decisive in censuring Congress stalwarts for misusing state government aircraft for electioneering. Most important, he has done his primary job of ensuring free and fair elections. The issue, however, is not one of Lyngdoh's record as CEC or even his exemplary level of personal integrity. At the heart of the misgivings over his public missives is the question of judgment and, more important, the underlying philosophy of politician baiting.
If a good man -- and I have little hesitation in saying that Lyngdoh is a man of utmost integrity -- is wrong, it is necessary to know why. Lyngdoh himself will not contest the assertion that it does not behove a person holding a responsible constitutional position to speak his mind on all subjects. As CEC, he is perfectly entitled to give his considered opinions on all election-related subjects, including his more controversial orders. However, to extend this logic to a general assessment of the state of politics and the character of politicians is unwarranted and beyond his brief. Lyngdoh has a right to give public discourses on the moral decrepitude of politicians.
Having heard some of his observations in a private conversation, I can guarantee that his memoirs will be delightfully instructive. But, ideally, he should await a full public exposition till after he has discharged his responsibility as CEC. As long as he occupies his present post, he is obliged to act within the framework of institutional discipline. There is an unwritten code of conduct that is applicable to non-elected officials holding constitutional posts. It rests on the application of restraint and good sense. By speaking his mind, Lyngdoh has violated that code. Yet, Lyngdoh's indiscretions were not unintended. They stem from a growing trend among appointed officials that they are beyond accountability.
To some extent, this arrogance is born out of the conviction that elected representatives of the people are incapable of wholesome conduct and that the ills of India can be located in their shortcomings. Stemming from this conviction is the corresponding belief that it is thus necessary to appropriate the mantle of executive decision-making from the politicians and hand it over to those who claim to know what is in the public good. This is at the root of, among other things, judicial over-intrusiveness and NGO activism. The presumption is that a small body of enlightened souls know what is good for the people much more than what the people know. Ironically, every dictator and every terrorist in the world swears by this belief.
This vigilantism is not only dangerous but strikes at the very roots of one of the pillars of democracy -- the separation of powers. Politicians may well be loathsome and despicable. Yet, at the end of every five years they are accountable to the electorate. Their mandate can be renewed or they can be unceremoniously dumped. But what can we do about our vigilantes who have nothing but contempt for the messy process of democracy? Three decades ago, Indira Gandhi, egged on by her Communist fellow travellers, spoke incessantly about a 'committed' judiciary and bureaucracy. Her motives were suspect because she used commitment as a euphemism for endorsing her policy of subverting democracy.
Today, the principle of autonomy has been championed to protect constitutional authorities from political pressure. Our democracy has benefited from this. Yet, there is a danger if the protection accorded by society to the custodians and watchdogs of law and democracy misuse their privileges to encroach into areas that are outside their domain.
Lyngdoh's outburst may have been an individual act of indiscretion and he may have desired nothing more than shower the political class with sneering contempt. Yet, viewed against the backdrop of encroachment into the domain of the Executive, it assumes a different meaning. We need to reform politics and politicians. But that is the job of society. The task of the CEC is simply to organise free and fair elections. He should remain single-mindedly devoted to that enormous task. By doing his job properly, Lyngdoh would be strengthening democracy and making Indian politics more wholesome. The task of moral cleansing should be left to others.