Current Affairs

TN Seshan, the Undaunted Reformer of India's Elections


Yatindra Bhatnagar

The man credited with reforming India’s amazingly diverse and astonishingly large electoral system and complex practices, Tirunellai Narayana Iyer Seshan (TN Seshan), was an accomplished official of varied talents. For half a century he held several top positions in the state and Central government with distinction.

He won the prestigious Ramon Magsaysay Award for distinguished government service in 1996.

Sadly, Seshan expired Nov. 10 at the age of 86.

Born December 15 in Palakkad – now in Kerala – Seshan completed his college education and joined the Indian Administrative Service in 1954. He served in various capacities till, finally, he landed at the Election Commission and started taming politicians from 1990. Before he retired six years later, he had already become a legend, a colossus by his exemplary management of the Election Commission, reforming where he could, speaking against corruption and advocating the spread of education which he said is the only way for the country to improve. He laid added emphasis on women’s education.

In addition, he had a great sense of humor. When he prepared a manual of elections curbing ‘rigging’ at the polling booths, he said that’s why my manual is named ‘Rig veda.’

As a tribute to his talent, honesty, love for hard work, belief in India’s great cultural heritage and a clean personal record, many people still lament and wonder why he could not become the President of India. It was because of narrow political alignment and formulation.

I had the privilege to interview Seshan and also to attend his talks, especially one at the famous Sunnyvale Hindu Temple (Northern California) in the nineties when he was on a visit to the United States. He was impressive, down to earth and gave ample indications about what more he wanted to do for the big election machinery in India.

The Indian electorate now boasts of 900 million registered voters, the largest democracy in the world where, in the last Parliamentary elections some 700 million voted. Amazing stats! The exercise went smoothly for which a big credit should go to Seshan, long retired, but who had  worked hard for six years, strengthened the Commission and reformed the process to weed out many bad elements and left a healthy legacy.

He streamlined and regulated what used to be unchecked and unaccounted poll expenses by candidates. He formulated rules for campaign like the model Code of Conduct, voter IDs, and banned liquor during campaign, bribes to voters, appeals based on caste, race, religion and other unfair practices.

Seshan maintained that corruption of the politicians is a major problem of India. He had pointed out and tried to do his best to tackle and minimize the chain between politicians, criminals and money. He reminded the people that “we were taught the value of time, money, honesty, and hard work from a very early age."

[In the current context of ending Article 370 and the Special Status of Jammu & Kashmir, I recall the remarks Seshan had made on his visit here. He said: the major problem with Kashmir is corruption. We spend over 1000 crore rupees every year (that was 25 year-old figures) on Kashmir and all the corrupt politicians swindle that money and it doesn’t reach the poor. We have nurtured corrupt fellows.] 

No doubt, Seshan was controversial, much hated by political parties and even threatened for his fairness but was very effective and widely admired by the people for his honesty. Seshan was knowledgeable, resolute, and visionary and had the ability to stand up to political pressures and accomplish what he visualized. During the Congress rule, with Prime Minister PV Narasimha Rao, and also subsequently, he took a firm stand and could not be pressured to bow to the government on electoral honesty and would not allow people contesting from places where they did not live and work.

One of the classic cases was of Manmohan Singh, later the Prime Minister for 10 years, a Punjabi Sikh who had no connection with Assam but still sought a Rajya Sabha seat from that state. Seshan said: it was strange to find that Manmohan Singh’s address was care of Mrs. Hiteshwar Saikia (the wife of the then Chief Minister of Assam.)

[It’s a common thing now - to find Rahul Gandhi contesting from Wayanad in Kerala (a safe seat) with which he had no affiliations, no roots, and no home there). It was for fear of losing his traditional seat in Amethi, that he, of course, lost.]

Chief Election Commissioner Seshan was fearless and did not succumb to political pressure. That’s why the then Congress government in 1993 appointed two Election Commissioners to work with Seshan.

In a subsequent talk, Seshan had said: Mr. Narasimha Rao and the Congress Government of those days found that I was not amenable to what they said. They tried all the means at their disposal; they threatened me, my wife, coaxed me, and cajoled me. They beat up my servants. Intimidation is an understatement. When everything failed they decided to appoint two additional commissioners. They said I was suffering from excess work. Actually, I was suffering from gross inadequacy of work.

[Seshan had filed a petition challenging the appointment of the two additional Commissioners but lost the case in the Supreme Court, commenting that "In my view it is a great superfluity."]

Earlier Seshan held the top civil service position of Cabinet Secretary with the Central Government. His last posting was Chief Election Commissioner of India – 1990-96. The Commission is an autonomous constitutional authority responsible for administering election processes in India at national, state and district level. The Commission administers elections to the Lok Sabha, Rajya Sabha, State Legislative Assemblies, State Legislative Councils, and the offices of the President and Vice President of the country.

Seshan, who spoke at least 8 languages, had a unique record of working with diverse subjects such as agriculture, industry, space, oil and gas, and defense. And he knew his India very well.

Seshan’s loss was mourned widely. The present Chief Election Commissioner, Sunil Arora, said he was a legend and an inspiration. Prime Minister Narendra Modi said the electoral reforms he attempted have made India’s democracy stronger and more participative.

Genuine tributes to the great man!