He cancelled elections in Punjab as well in the same year to see to it that the poll process was not vitiated by violence
One of his big achievements includes the ban on the use of religion in election speeches
The iconic former Indian Chief Election Commissioner Tirunellai Narayana Iyer Seshan popularly known as T.N. Seshan, who was feared by almost all politicians, including Prime Ministers in India, passed away last Sunday at the age of 86, at his Chennai residence.
Despite him being hated by many politicians in India for his tough attitude towards the election lawbreakers, he was revered by all those who wanted democracy in the country to flourish.
This was vividly manifested by almost all headlines in major Indian newspapers under which the story of his death was reported. Here are some of them: Former CEC TN Seshan: A no-nonsense man, he cleaned up India’s electoral system, Epitome of a decisive public servant, Why TN Seshan Was the Greatest Ringmaster of the Great Indian Electoral Circus, TN Seshan helped transform EC into a more effective institution, Behind that firmness that turned Election Commission into an institution, How T.N.Seshan put India among stars.
Before Seshan was appointed as the Chief Elections Commissioner of India in 1990 by the then Prime Minister Chandrashekhar, who was in office for a few months with only 45 seats in the 545 member Indian Parliament, Seshan was well known for his toughness and straightforwardness.
In 1989 he had been appointed the Cabinet Secretary of India, the senior-most position in the Indian civil service hierarchy.
Hence, referring to his appointment after his death an Indian journalist, Madhavan Narayanan wrote:-
“The story goes that when Subramanian Swamy as India’s law minister played a pivotal role in the appointment of T.N.Seshan as the Chief Elections Commissioner, Rajiv Gandhi, whose Congress party played a key role in supporting and then toppling the then government, asked him: “Do you realise what you have done?” Or something to that effect.”
There was a joke in the 1990s that Indian politicians feared only God and T.N. Seshan – and not necessarily in that order.
Such was the role Seshan played in cleaning up the Indian elections when it was highly dominated by muscle and money power. He wielded the big stick and implemented the election manual in letter and spirit, due to which he was even called “Al Seshan” (implying Alsatian) by corrupt politicians.
Until 1989, the Indian Elections Commission was a single-member Commission. Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi made it into a multi-member one in October 1989, as he wanted to clip the then Chief Election Commissioner’s powers. But the multi-member commission lasted only till January 1, 1990.
When Seshan, who was appointed to the Elections Commission in December 1990, became a headache to the politicians, Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao again made the Commission into a three-member commission on October 1, 1993. Seshan challenged the move in the Supreme Court in 1995. But, concerned over his abrasive style, the judges sided with the government. And since then the multi-member panel has been in operation.
Till he took over, political parties ferrying people to polling stations was considered quite “normal,” and it was during Seshan’s stint as CEC that it became impossible with the model code of conduct for politicians being made sacrosanct.
Booth capturing - a term not familiar among Sri Lankans now, despite it being practically witnessed in Sri Lanka in eighties, culminating at the 1982 Referendum - was rampant during elections in India before Seshan took over the Elections Commission. He brought down the number of such incidents considerably. One of his big achievements includes the ban on the use of religion in election speeches.
In order to circumvent the rampant practice of voter impersonation, in 1992, Seshan called for the government to issue photo identification cards to all voters. The politicians bitterly protested this move, claiming that it was expensive. After waiting eighteen months for the government to act, Seshan announced that if no identification cards were issued to voters, no elections would be held after January 1, 1995.
In fact, a number of elections were postponed because voters did not have identification cards, but the Supreme Court eventually interceded and ruled that voting was an inherent right of citizens, thus voting could not be postponed indefinitely. Even so, because of Seshan’s insistence, the government began issuing ID cards and by 1996, when he left election office two million voters already held them.
In an effort to curb overspending by candidates, Seshan ordered candidates to keep accurate accounts of expenditures. It was not a “toothless” order. He decreed that all election expenses must be explicitly accounted for, the accounts must be filed accompanied by an affidavit of oath (making it possible to prosecute candidates for giving false information), and the accounts must be certified by the district election officer.
Then he established campaign spending limits for candidates: 20,000 to 40,000 INR for State Assembly elections and 150,000 to 170,000 INR for Parliamentary Elections.
A no-nonsense man, Seshan disqualified altogether, 1,488 candidates for Lok Sabha in 1993 for three years because they failed to submit their expense accounts.
In order to prevent booth capturing and violence near polling booths aimed at dissuading weaker sections of the society such as the Dalits, who would not cast their votes for so-called upper-caste candidates, Seshan deployed additional forces.
He was so fearless before politicians that he recommended to Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao to sack two of his ministers – Sitaram Kesri and Kalpanath Rai – for influencing the voters, However, Rao did not comply.
In resolving electoral cases, Seshan acted swiftly. During his predecessor’s time in one high-profile case (involving a dispute between Subramaniam Swamy and the Janata Party), held multiple hearings and took 1,600 pages of notes without ever reaching a decision. Seshan heard the case once and settled it. Indeed, during his term as CEC, Seshan reviewed more than forty thousand alleged cases of false election returns and disqualified fourteen thousand potential candidates for public office. When rules were violated he did not hesitate to postpone elections or to order a re-poll even at the last minute.
In 1991 when acts of firing, rigging and booth capturing by hordes of supporters of Mulayam Singh Yadav of the Samajwadi Party were reported from a constituency, Seshan lost no time in cancelling elections in the entire constituency and ordering a re-poll. He cancelled elections in Punjab as well in the same year to see to it that the poll process was not vitiated by violence.
He was always strict on cases such as bribing or intimidating voters, distribution of liquor during elections, use of official machinery for campaigning, appealing to voters’ caste or communal feelings and use of religious places for campaigns. He would stagger the voting to deploy additional forces which reduced the risks of booth capturing and violence near polling booths.
In one case, polling was suspended in a Madhya Pradesh constituency where a serving Governor campaigned for his son, ultimately leading to the Governor’s resignation, while in Uttar Pradesh, a minister was forced to quit the dais at a rally as the campaign period had just ended.
The Chief Secretary of UP was taken to task for issuing an advertisement in a newspaper at the cost of public exchequer. He remarked once that he “ate politicians for breakfast”.
Yet, as the CEC, he knew that he could never be puritanical in enforcing a disciplined ballot. He used the term “acceptable levels of violence” as a pragmatic indication of when he would crack his whip and where he would not.
In his zealous mission to cleanse the electoral system, though he earned the wrath of politicians, who had made more than one attempt to impeach him, he was awarded the Ramon Magsaysay Award in 1996 for “His resolute actions to bring order, fairness, and integrity to elections in India, the world’s largest democracy.”
The situation has changed now.
During the Lok Sabha elections held in May this year, political parties across the country were seen brazenly violating the poll code, using religion to seek votes. Rajasthan Governor Kalyan Singh campaigned to support Prime Minister Narendra Singh Modi.