James M. Lyngdoh
Both victories were surprising. The first was the electoral win last October of the rebel-backed People's Democratic Party in Kashmir -- the first time an opposition party defeated the New Delhi-backed government in almost two decades. The second was the sweep of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party's fundamentalist candidates in the riot-torn state of Gujarat in December. What both elections had in common was their confirmation by international observers to have been "free and fair."
Voters have James M. Lyngdoh, 64, to thank for that. India's upright chief election commissioner was determined to ensure that voters could get to the polls without threat of violence or fear of ballot-box stuffing. That took facing up to political pressure. But the struggle was worth it. The elections installed leaders recognized as legitimate in the two states, helped open the door to a thaw in relations between India and Pakistan over Kashmir, and calmed religious ferment in Gujarat.
It takes a lot of work to monitor an election in India, the world's largest democracy. The intense, straight-talking Lyngdoh travels ceaselessly to check conditions on the ground as elections approach. A year ahead of the Kashmir vote, for example, he even visited Kargil, the Himalayan peak where Indian and Pakistani troops clashed in the summer of 1998. "His priority was to make sure Kashmiris believed that the elections would really be fair," says Sayan Chatterjee, deputy election commissioner.
Lyngdoh's team oversaw the computerization of previously handwritten voter rolls, issued identity cards to every voter, and introduced electronic voting machines. Most important, state security forces were instructed not to force people to vote -- a tactic previously used to intimidate people into backing the ruling party.
Lyngdoh faces important new challenges this year. He must oversee key elections in four Indian states -- all a runup to a national vote in 2004. He'll also be working on his pet project: ensuring that candidates with criminal records not run until they are cleared by the courts. "The system has to be honest," he says. With Lyngdoh on the job, voters can be very confident that it will be.