TN Seshan: The crusader and newsmaker India needed in the 1990s

He symbolised the constitutional possibilities of institutions at a time when the country was disillusioned.

ByAnand Vardhan
TN Seshan: The crusader and newsmaker India needed in the 1990s
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“Yee Seshanwa chunav karwa raha hai ki kumbh (Is Seshan conducting an election or kumbh)?” Lalu Prasad Yadav, then Bihar chief minister, quipped in the spring of 1995 as the state was gearing up for the Assembly poll. 

Lalu was visibly miffed at the then Chief Election Commissioner, Tirunellai Narayana Iyer Seshan. Seshan had scheduled the election in four phases — a novelty in the 1990s — and then shuffled the poll dates to handle administrative and security preparedness. In a state that’s witnessed rampant muscle power and electoral banditry, executed through the rogue force of “booth capturing”, poll administration was never the same again. 

Lalu should have known. Four years ago, during the 1991 Uttar Pradesh Assembly poll, Seshan asserted the authority of the poll body to make the administration and police force wholly accountable to the Election Commission during the period of the poll process. “We are at the mercy of a merciless head,” a senior poll officer reportedly said, a compliment to the ruthless efficiency Seshan sought to bring to the Election Commission. 

Not since the days of Sukumar Sen — India’s first CEC who disagreed with Jawaharlal Nehru’s haste and delayed the first general election till logistics were in place — has the office of the CEC been this talked about. By the time Seshan left, he had changed the profile of the Nirvachan Sadan. In his six years as the CEC (December 12, 1990, to December 11, 1996), Seshan redefined how India campaigns, votes and administers polls. The Model Code of Conduct, photo identity card for voting, the Commission’s complete and unchallenged supervision of poll process — these were shaped by his determined leadership.

In the process of doing so, Seshan had his share of run-ins with powerful politicians of different hues. Famously, Seshan once said, “I eat politicians for breakfast.” Such confrontations had their own role in making him one of the most talked-about civil servants since Independence.

A no-nonsense doggedness for probity, blended with a penchant for churning out headline-worthy bytes for the press, earned Seshan the image of a crusader. This was at a time when a slew of corruption cases, scams and electoral malpractices had led the public to view the political class with disillusionment. If instant recognition and high social status weren’t enough incentives for a generation of aspiring bureaucrats, Seshan’s fame as one of the key newsmakers of the Nineties added a defiant glamour to the appeal of powerful civil services — something it wouldn’t normally like to associate itself with.

Seshan topped the civil services examination to join the 1955 batch of the Indian Administrative Service. He was allotted to the Tamil Nadu cadre. There are many anecdotes about his eventful years in the state including those in his biography, Seshan: An Intimate Story, by journalist K Govindan Kutty. One oft-recalled story is about Seshan’s resolute handling of Sheikh Abdullah’s house arrest in a hotel near Kodai Lake. At the time, Seshan was district collector of Madurai. The young officer called Abdullah’s bluff when the latter threatened to go on a fast-unto-death if the officer continued to discharge his duty of going through the detained leader’s letters.

Seshan’s early stint as transport commissioner in what was then Madras is remembered as a reflection of his eagerness to have a hands-on grasp of the work. As the head of the public transport body, he learnt to drive a bus to understand the problems drivers faced. He once even once drove passengers for a distance of 80 kilometres. 

His central assignments saw him making his mark as a secretary in the Ministry of Environment and Forests. He was then moved to supervising internal security. Here, Seshan worked closely with Rajiv Gandhi, the prime minister at the time. The monitoring of Gandhi’s security details shaped a close rapport with the prime minister. Besides these, a stint in the now-defunct Planning Commission followed. In what was regarded as the topmost position for a career bureaucrat in India, Seshan served as cabinet secretary during the last few months of Rajiv Gandhi’s prime ministership.

Given his postings in Delhi’s power corridors, Seshan was reportedly reluctant to take over the role of CEC. Then, the Election Commission was a toothless and low-key poll body. But to his credit, Seshan realised the scope of Article 324 of the Constitution which gives wide powers to the Commission for the conduct, superintendence and direction of polls. He made it a point that the government of the day recognise the constitutional mandate of the Election Commission for conducting elections and the necessary electoral reforms.

It wasn’t only regional stalwarts like Lalu who bore the brunt of Seshan’s drive for stamping the Election Commission’s authority on poll administration in India. Ripples could be seen at the top too. Sometimes steadfastly consistent and sometimes obdurately unreasonable — that’s how the media began to see Seshan. 

The Congress government at the Centre led by PV Narasimha Rao had its own anxieties about its frequent collisions with Seshan. In October 1993, the Centre turned the Election Commission into a multi-member body, appointing MS Gill and GVG Krishnamurthy as the other two election commissioners. While Seshan continued as CEC with curtailed powers vis-a-vis the other two commissioners, the initial months of this new arrangement weren’t smooth. Seshan even sought the Supreme Court’s intervention in the issue. The court ruled in the Centre’s favour, though by then, Seshan was ready for another fight. 

He was adamant about invoking Rule 37 of the  Representation of the People Act, 1951, to postpone any election (or not hold it at all) after January 1, 1995, if the government continued to delay the issuing of photo identity cards. It triggered an impasse-like situation. The then communist chief minister of West Bengal, Jyoti Basu, dubbed Seshan a “mad dog” while former prime minister Vishwanath Pratap Singh compared the situation to a “democratic lockdown”. Seshan relented only after judicial intervention, though his partly impractical and largely determined approach ensured that photo identity cards became a reality in Indian elections sooner than later.

Despite criticism regarding institutional overreach, Seshan’s measures went a long way in establishing the credibility of the Election Commission in public perception. Interestingly, A Cross-Sectional Analysis of National Electorate, a study published in 1999, three years after he retired, ranked the Election Commission as having the highest level of trust among public institutions in India. This high level of public confidence was reiterated in another study incorporated in State of Democracy in South Asia: A Report published in 2008.

One sometimes wondered if Seshan stood on blurred lines of self-importance and a sense of duty, activism and the rule-bound civil services. Some of his media statements were part of a persona that was keen on playing to the gallery. Remember, his large base of admirers were built in a country where the credibility of the political class was low and cynicism was common. In a binary of politician-civil servant confrontation, the latter was a beneficiary in perceptions of the salaried middle class, who were not only the prime consumers of media but responsible for a lot of its content. Even their career aspirations were more aligned to a towel-covered civil servant’s chair in a government office.

Perhaps carried away by such an inflated view of his public standing, Seshan tried his luck as the Shiv Sena candidate against KR Narayanan in the 1997 presidential election. Two years later, he entered the 1999 Lok Sabha poll, standing as the Congress candidate against LK Advani in Gandhinagar. Unsurprisingly, he was defeated comprehensively in both the polls.

A deeply religious man, Seshan once told an interviewer that reading the Bhagavad Gita was part of his daily routine. So, it’s not difficult to see how he made peace with his gradual fading away from public memory in the last two decades of his life. A lecture here, a talk there and some motivational homilies elsewhere — that’s what the public presence of this middle-class India, blue-eyed boy of the Nineties meant during the initial years of the 2000s. 

Then that stopped too.

In a way, Seshan symbolised the constitutional possibilities of institutions and how that can shape the fairness and freedom with which millions exercise their electoral choice in a populous, chaotic, noisy and vibrant democracy. In doing so, while he sometimes galvanised the much-maligned civil services into enabling action, sometimes his fault-lines were not different from the know-all hubris that often plague the appointed authority in India. Warts and all, Nirvachan Sadan has lot to thank Seshan for what people now expect of the poll body.

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