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The Rediff Interview/J M Lyngdoh
July 31, 2003
James Michael Lyngdoh is a man of few words. But when he speaks, it become news, controversy, or at least some interesting fact.
A couple of hours after his name became public as one of the winners of this year's Magsaysay Award, with a hint of smile he met with a few journalists to answer queries in short sentences, never making any pompous claims.
Later he spoke to Chief Correspondent Josy Joseph in his office as congratulatory messages and interview requests from media houses began to flood him.
How does it feel to get the prestigious award?
This is the second time that one from this institution is getting it. I hope more will get it.
You have faced a lot of criticism for the way you conducted the Gujarat election. What do you feel about it when you look back?
It was quite challenging. I think you people had already done the job both in Gujarat and Kashmir. So there was little left for me to do.
Is the award a vindication of the stand that you took during the Gujarat poll? Will it be what you want to tell your critics?
It is up to them, what they want to see. I don't get into personal things against anyone. I just do my job, that is all.
Is the award a vindication?
It could be. Maybe some people see it that way.
What is the next big challenge for you?
We are preparing ourselves for the next bout of elections. But for the general election it may be somebody else, because I won't be here.
How has it been all along as Chief Election Commissioner?
It has been exciting all along. I don't know how difficult or how easy, but it has been exciting. It has been many good moments.
Do you regret that you never got such recognition within your country?
I certainly will not say that because all of you gave me more recognition than I deserved.
There is a substantial amount of money that comes with this award. What do you plan to do with it?
I have not really thought about it, really.
Some believe your harsh stand during the Gujarat poll ultimately favoured Narendra Modi and the BJP. What do you think?
They could have favoured, they could have gone against him. I mean it was a day-to-day sort of affair. In fact we gave them credibility, to people who have won the election. If it were held in the earlier condition it would have been [under] unfair conditions. They were held, and they were fair. And whoever had to win won, we have nothing against that. Somebody has to win somebody has to lose. That is none of our business.
Is this an award for J M Lyngdoh, or the institution?
The institution. This is one of the best institutions in the country. All you have to do is to maintain it. To maintain its position, where it is. It is not like most other institutions, which have to be built up from the ground level. It is already at a high level.
What are the qualities you believe are a must for being a good CEC?
You have to be honest to yourself and you shouldn't be bothered about other people. You do what you think is right.
Any regrets that you have in your career, anything you think could have been done differently?
No, no. In fact I have been doing this all my life, but this time one gets recognition from you people. You were not there on earlier occasions so what one did went unnoticed.
The citation says you upheld free and fair elections in a 'strife-torn India.' Is India in such a difficult situation?
I don't know what the second part is. I am nobody to comment on my own country. From our point of view we try to do something: good elections.
What would you like to improve in our electoral system? Is there any particular thing that you want to improve?
A lot, a lot. Electoral roll in most parts is not as clean as it should be. It will take many years to bring it to standard because everybody wants to cheat. It is a continuing aim and it never ends.
Is it difficult to work in a three-member team?
Absolutely not. It wasn't difficult earlier in the earlier combination.
You are getting the award at a time when the bureaucracy of which you were an integral part -- before retiring to join the Commission -- is under attack for corruption. What needs to be done?
If you are getting exposed too much to politicians you are bound to be corrupt. If you get exposed to them for too long you will get cancer.
If you are an ordinary bureaucrat you are working under politicians all the time -- that makes all the difference. You are not a bureaucrat here, there is a qualitative difference being there (in the government) and here.
If all these people could be freed from transfers and postings, it will be a different situation all together. We get very good work from the same bureaucracy during elections. We get very good work. But obviously we treat them differently. If you follow certain norms, then you get good work otherwise you won't.
Will it be fair to say that you got the award for the Gujarat and Kashmir elections?
Absolutely. And they are inseparable. We got all our credibility from Gujarat. From the moment we announced our August 16 order. We went to Kashmir on the 18th. We were received differently by everybody from airhostesses to the army commanders. We received tremendous respect.
What do you feel when you see those in power trying to save the riot accused, blatantly violating rules with no regard for human lives? How do you handle such politicians?
As a citizen you don't feel assured, that is for sure. I suppose it is part of our society. In fact you have to live with it, outwit it all the time. You have to live, outwitting those elements all the time.
And you did your part?
One tries not to fall asleep. You need plenty of cold water to keep yourself awake in such times.
Have you come across any politician who is committed to democratic values, is fair and bothered about his people?
Which are the worst states in terms of electoral practices?
My favourite state Bihar has always been in the news. UP is there, there are lots of other states which ought to be there. Tamil Nadu is one such.
What will you do after you demit office in February?
I have three dogs. It takes a lot of effort to look after three dogs. By the time I am finished half the day would be over so only the second half of the day is what I will have.
You have been a silent bureaucrat, a tough one at that, all your life. Is it an amazing reward at the end of your career?
It is interesting. It is an eccentric kind of happening.
Despite the ruling party taking objection to your conduct you were able to conduct the polls. And your critics accepted the results with much glee. Narendra Modi and his friends saw a conspiracy behind your decisions.
It is not what he says. It is people like you who are the ultimate judge of what happened, what didn't happen. There are more and more people like you. That means it is a maturing country. Not only as a democracy, it is a maturing country as such.
And that maturing process is reflected in our political class?
I hope so. They are so degraded. One also hopes they will also be relieved.
I believe you are settling down in Hyderabad.
We have just finished building our house. It is a nice place. All the winds meet in Hyderabad.
Photograph: RAVEENDRAN/AFP/Getty Images
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