AT the end of a five-day headline-hogging slugfest between Chief Election Commissioner M.S. Gill and Election Commissioner G.V.G. Krishnamurthy, the lines of authority have been clearly drawn. Gill emerged the undisputed boss, Krishnamurthy lost face and the press, which had gleefully lapped up his accusations against Gill, its free access to Nirvachan Sadan.
Ostensibly, Krishnamurthy was upset by Gill's "soft" stand on the Shiv Sena. In fact, he was angry with Gill for having questioned his right to announce the EC's decision on Sena party polls when the CEC was out of town. As expected, Krishnamurthy's announcement, backed by a stern letter to Bal Thackeray, set up the veteran political leader's back. For Gill, it sent the message that Krishnamurthy regarded himself as wielding authority equal to that of the CEC.
As Krishnamurthy threatened protest leave and railed against Gill, the CEC remained tight-lipped but firm. He refused to defend himself but neither did he give Krishna-murthy an inch. If the EC wanted leave, he could have it. His bluff called, Krishnamurthy capitulated. Not satisfied, Gill issued an order to the effect that the CEC alone would address the press—a signal to Krishnamurthy to be more circumspect in future.
GVG, as Krishnamurthy is known, has always seemed mercurial and quick to fly off the handle. When former CEC T.N. Ses-han challenged his and Gill's induction into the EC, it was GVG who constantly confronted him—a fact which didn't escape the apex court's attention. While calling Seshan to book, it advised GVG to go easy.
After Seshan's tenure ended and shortly before Gill was appointed CEC, GVG made a determined pitch for the top job. Since he'd been appointed Law Commission secretary—a post equivalent to secretary to the Government of India—before Gill, an IAS officer, achieved that rank, he claimed seniority. The government thought otherwise and chose Gill as "first among equals" in the three-member EC.
Gill took over on a conciliatory note, repeatedly saying "I'm only one-third of the EC". He proved a team player, involving not just his colleagues but the entire staff of Nirvachan Sadan. "I have the confidence to persuade my colleagues. I also have the conviction that if I can't, then their idea may be better than mine," Gill once said. Publicly, at least, the CEC adopted consensus as his watchword. But the EC, for so long a single-member body, clearly hadn't adjusted to the drastic structural change wrought by Narasimha Rao's government.
More than once, the press corps witnessed GVG's tendency to take over press conferences, sometimes even interrupting Gill.Soon, he was addressing the press on his own, in stark contrast to his taciturn colleague J.M. Lyngdoh. The first signs of trouble came when he issued a statement saying the presidential poll would be by conscience vote. At first, Gill explained his stand as a personal view. But repeated statements from GVG, who was by now being called 'chhota Seshan', forced Gill to categorically deny the EC had taken, or was likely to take, such a decision.
Matters came to a head when GVG, in the absence of Gill, called a press meet to announce the EC's demand that the Sena hold party polls and asked Thackeray to appear before the EC on December 24, failing which, a letter sent to the Sena chief warned, "action will be taken without further reference to you".
Curiously, although Lyngdoh was in office, he wasn't called. Gill had been firm on Sena polls being held, but seemed to be relying more on persuading its recalcitrant chief rather than issuing diktats which might lead to an unpleasant face-off. Which is precisely what happened. Thackeray lost no time in telling the EC: "Who the hell are you to decide our system is undemocratic?"
Gill made his pique with GVG plain, sarcastically saying the EC should have a "code of conduct". GVG took immediate umbrage, accused Gill of being partial and threatened to go on protest leave. He dispatched an application for a nine-day leave to the President. He remained on his high horse for three days and welcomed Rashtriya Janata Dal chief Laloo Pra-sad Yadav to his home. Both Lyngdoh and Gill had refused to meet Laloo—apparently because his request that the RJD be recognised as a national party was still under consideration.
The President advised GVG to mend fences with Gill. The CEC too received similar advice. But Gill wouldn't budge. When GVG made overtures, Gill used the opportunity to establish his authority once and for all.
Though GVG clarified he'd climbed down "in the larger interest of the nation and the EC", called Gill his "distinguished colleague" and said the EC would work collectively, he didn't apologise for attacking Gill. And those who know him are willing to bet this isn't his last salvo.