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Succeeding Mr Lyngdoh

January 15, 2004 09:54 IST

Who will succeed J M Lyngdoh as the Chief Election Commissioner? It is a fascinating question, but, to me, the most interesting aspect that such a query is receiving so much attention at all. Think about it, everyone knows that India's first prime minister was Jawaharlal Nehru but how many people can name the country's first Chief Election Commissioner? (It was Sukumar Sen, who presided over the Election Commission from 1950 to 1958.) It was only after T N Seshan was appointed to the job that the head of the Election Commission began hitting the headlines regularly.

Seshan's confrontationist style has seemingly been accepted as the norm; these days if a Chief Election Commissioner does not have a run-in with the government of the day he is almost seen as a sissy! But this does a grave injustice to former Chief Election Commissioners; didn't T Swaminathan -- who conducted the historic general election of 1977 -- or R V S Peri Sastri -- whose tenure saw the fall of Rajiv Gandhi in 1989 -- assert their independence without making a huge song and dance about it? Actually, the latter did have some problems with the then government, but there wasn┬╣t half as much fuss as we see today.

It was the trouble with Peri Sastri that led to the first attempt, in 1989, to clip the Chief Election Commissioner's wings by appointing a multi-member body. (S S Dhanoa and V S Seigell served as Election Commissioners from October 1989 to January 1990, after which the Election Commission again became a one-man body.) But it snowballed into a major talking-point only in 1993 when Seshan was at loggerheads with the P V Narasimha Rao ministry. (Ironically, in the last general election, Seshan was the Congress nominee to take on L K Advani in Gandhinagar.) In principle, I agree that a multi-member Election Commission is better than a one-man body if only because it reduces the chances of decisions being taken on one man's whims, or of depending too much on the virtues of an individual.

But, however excellent the team, there can be only one man who serves as the captain. This raises the question of the modality of selecting the right leader. In the past decade, when the three-man Election Commission became the norm, the practice has been to follow the Supreme Court example: appoint the most senior sitting member as the chief.

While this supposedly reduces the chances of favouritism, there is a flaw in the practice. A member of the Election Commission serves for six years or until reaching the age of 65 (whichever comes first). Blindly appointing the most senior member could mean that India gets a Chief Election Commissioner who is in office for less than a year. (I think there was a case of a Chief Justice of India who was in office for just 19 days, and another of a man who presided over a high court for two days!)

A second flaw could be that a man with limited administrative experience becomes the Chief Election Commissioner. He might, for instance, have spent his life in the law; one of the arguments in favour of the multi-member body was to support the Chief Election Commissioner with colleagues well-versed in the law. But the Election Commission's Secretariat in Delhi has a full-time staff of 300, there are more in the various states, and at election time the Chief Election Commissioner presides over a huge army. Administrative experience is an absolute must.

At present, the Chief Election Commissioner's colleagues are T S Krishna Murthy and B B Tandon (in that order of seniority). The first was an officer in the tax department, the second was secretary (personnel) in the Government of India. Speculation is rife that a more senior man could be named Chief Election Commissioner once Lyngdoh's term ends.

For the record, I am not a believer in the theory of seniority; let the best man get the job. But I foresee problems if the government decides to supersede the sitting commissioners. At the very least, it will give the Opposition a chance to berate the Vajpayee ministry for its perceived bias. In a worst-case scenario, Krishna Murthy and Tandon might quit in protest. That would leave us with three inexperienced people presiding over the Election Commission on the very eve of a general election. For that reason alone, the hackneyed principle of seniority may continue for now.

T V R Shenoy