|Rediff India Abroad Home | All the sections|
It's King Lyngdoh again
November 27, 2003
Consider this a follow-up to my last column. It is not just the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Telugu Desam who are exasperated with Chief Election Commissioner J M Lyngdoh's officious attitude but also the Congress (I). (His admirers of course will describe his attitude as 'zealous' rather than 'officious', and the fact that he has major parties across the board against him is actually quite a compliment!)
The Election Commission threatened to remove the Congress' recognition if it did not explain how and why Sonia Gandhi allegedly used official machinery while campaigning in Chhattisgarh.
There are, to my mind, two separate issues here. Did Sonia Gandhi actually abuse government property courtesy Ajit Jogi as alleged? Was the Election Commission correct in threatening to derecognise the party for its supposed sin?
Let me first try to answer the second question. My memory goes back 28 years, to the famous Allahabad high court judgment when Indira Gandhi's election to the Lok Sabha was set aside on much the same grounds, namely misuse of the official machinery.
With the benefit of hindsight, I think the declaration of the Emergency was a major over-reaction. I simply do not believe that the people of India at large were terribly concerned about something which I recall one friend of mine describing as "the poll equivalent of a traffic ticket"! I am sure that she would have been re-elected handily had there been a by-election.
(Indira Gandhi was probably spooked by all the talk of a conspiracy against her. Again speaking with hindsight, she was probably correct; there was certainly a stench of conspiracy in the air in Delhi in those dramatic days of June 1975 -- but it came from within the Congress ranks, rather than from the rag-tag Opposition or from any 'foreign hand.' According to many, here was a strong chance that some Congressmen -- Jagjivan Ram was one name that came up frequently -- were prepared to drum Indira Gandhi out of the party itself!)
Coming back to the present day, I think the Election Commission got it totally wrong by threatening derecognition. How on earth can you propose to punish a party as a whole because of a misdemeanour by its president? The Election Commission had every right to demand an explanation, but what was the point in pointing to a potential punishment at the same time? More so when one suspects that it was pretty much an empty threat! And doubly so when Sonia Gandhi's guilt or innocence remained to be proved.
Which brings up the second part: did Sonia Gandhi actually misuse official machinery? The allegation is that she flew around in a helicopter belonging to the government of Chhattisgarh. Ajit Jogi's administration has offered the explanation that she actually used it to attend an official function, the opening of the Rajiv Gandhi memorial in Sriperumbudur.
This smacks of being too clever by half. What on earth was a helicopter belonging to the government of Chhattisgarh doing at Chennai airport? Come to that, why should any vehicle belonging to Chhattisgarh be in Tamil Nadu at any point in time? They are all meant for administrative convenience, not for ferrying party leaders at the taxpayers' cost.
(These matters were handled rather more delicately even in the Emergency. Sanjay Gandhi, the 'Crown Prince', used official aircraft freely enough, but there was always somebody like the minister of state for defence accompanying him to provide the necessary figleaf. Sonia Gandhi was probably a little careless!)
In any case, why was it necessary for Sonia Gandhi to use the helicopter? Chennai is not so very far from Sriperumbudur, and the roads in that part of Tamil Nadu are actually quite good. (I speak from personal experience having often travelled from Chennai to Tirupati by that route.) Frankly, I doubt that the Congress (I) boss saved anything more than 40 minutes at most by taking the aerial route.
Second, as the Jogi administration correctly noted, Sonia Gandhi was going to attend an official function, one where both the president and the prime minister were present. Such occasions are organised several months in advance. If Sonia Gandhi so wished, a private helicopter could have been hired to ferry her. Come to that, did anyone actually repay the government of Chhattisgarh for the use of its helicopter? Official function or not, it is certainly not Chhattisgarh's duty to provide creature comforts for the Leader of the Opposition in the Lok Sabha!
I hope everyone -- BJP, Congress, or whoever -- learns a lesson from the episode. But is it really asking for too much for the Election Commission to make its point a little less rudely?
Tailpiece: Ashwin Mahesh took me to task in his last column, in passing, while on the subject of Chandrababu Naidu. Actually I agree with almost all of what he wrote. (Rediff readers may recall that I wrote back in May 2002 that the Andhra Pradesh chief minister's 'successes' -- both political and economic -- were due in large measure to the benevolence of the BJP, which of course had its own political compulsions in supporting him.)
It is just that the sight of an unelected bureaucrat seemingly taking pleasure in publicly running down elected officials (and his own former colleagues in the government machinery) raises my hackles. It is also a hoary tradition in the Westminster system that a chief executive possessing the confidence of the House has the right to call for early polls -- as Margaret Thatcher did in 1983 and 1987, Tony Blair following her example in 2001. If we dislike that tradition it is for Parliament to legislate otherwise; it should not be left to an Election Commission which, at the end of the day, is not really answerable to anyone. (Taking it to court is too laborious to be effective.)
I also remain sceptical about the excuse that it needs time to update the rolls. I moved to a new apartment in April of 2002. In the 19 months since then there has been no visible effort to update the rolls to reflect this fact. The Election Commission has left it to me to fill out forms on my own initiative. If that is the situation in Delhi -- where everyone knew assembly polls were due in the end of 2003 -- why would I believe that the Election Commission is making a serious effort to update the rolls in sprawling Andhra Pradesh?
My previous column was written to condemn the arrogance -- as I see it -- of the current head of the Election Commission, not in blind support of Chandrababu Naidu. I must apologise to readers if that was not made sufficiently clear.
By the way, I noticed several people scolding me for pointing out that 'bye-election' is a spelling mistake. The Oxford English Dictionary bears this out; while it cites 'bye-law' as an acceptable alternative to 'by-law' there is no such version listed for 'by-election'. I am not being sarcastic, but as a professional wordsmith I am curious to know if there is any dictionary that offers 'bye-election' as a correct spelling. Is this perhaps an Americanism?
T V R Shenoy