New Delhi: The Election Commission is commonly dragged into murky slugfests between political parties today, but it was unimaginable a few decades ago when T.N. Seshan was in charge of the poll body.
Credited with cleaning up Indian elections as chief election commissioner (CEC) between 1990 and 1996, Seshan is widely seen as a “legend” who enforced the model code of conduct for the first time and invoked fear in politicians for his ruthless approach.
He died in Chennai Sunday after a cardiac arrest.
Expressing his condolences, incumbent CEC Sunil Arora said, “T.N. Seshan was a legend. He will always be a source of inspiration to us and all CECs & ECs to come.”
Election Commissioner Ashok Lavasa, who made headlines earlier this year for dissenting with the poll body, said, “The passing away of Sh. Seshan marks the end of an era. He upheld the dignity of his office & earned respect by his fierce independence & effective functioning.
“A goalpost for his successors, he continues to be a benchmark for the constitutional framework of a thriving democracy,” said Lavasa.
In his last years, Seshan — he would’ve turned 87 next month — may have become an ailing, pale shadow of the man he once was, but Indian politicians, it was said half-jokingly, “feared only God or T.N. Seshan”.
Even today, Seshan’s tenure is remembered fondly — the Supreme Court last year told the poll body to aspire for the kind of credibility it enjoyed during Seshan’s days.
“He really gave the Election Commission the face and stature it enjoys today,” said V.S. Sampath, one of his successors as CEC.
First to implement code of conduct
T.N. Seshan seemed to own a big stick, and spared nobody while swinging it. During his tenure, he is credited with effectively implementing the model code of conduct for the first time, reining in muscle and money power in elections, filing cases and arresting candidates for not abiding by polling rules, and suspending officials for aligning with candidates.
“The EC can continue to learn from his legacy. From the 1960s right up to the 80s, the EC was being run Ram-bharose (left to the mercy of God), said H.S. Brahma, another former CEC.
“He was the first CEC to actually implement the model code of conduct and rule of law. Before him, election commissioners were happy to just announce election results.”
Brahma added, “He was ruthless and unforgiving when it came to the electoral staff across the country about electoral discipline… And not just that, he was equally strict with politicians — he wouldn’t listen to them.”
In 1994, in a move that raised many eyebrows in political circles, he advised then Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao to remove two sitting ministers — welfare minister Sitaram Kesari and food minister Kalpnath Rai — from the cabinet for reportedly influencing voters.
Despite being criticised for ostensibly overstepping his mandate, an unfazed Seshan stuck to his guns.
Having cut candidates’ expenditure during elections significantly, he ensured that the image of wealthy politicians landing in poverty-stricken villages in government-loaned helicopters, distributing alcohol and money, became a thing of the past.
He maintained zero tolerance for campaign speeches stroking religion and caste-based hatred.
Civil servant & presidential candidate
On either side of his term as CEC, T.N. Seshan remained in public service. A 1955-batch IAS officer from the Tamil Nadu cadre, Seshan served in various capacities in his home state and at the Centre, rising to the rank of cabinet secretary — the senior-most position in the civil service hierarchy. He served in this capacity for just over eight months in 1989, becoming the shortest-serving cabinet secretary in independent India’s history.
He also served as a member of the now-dissolved Planning Commission, and contested the 1997 election for President of India against the eventual winner, K.R. Narayanan.
Along the way, his style of functioning earned him many detractors, who thought of him as a dictatorial megalomaniac. Stray allegations of him once ordering his bodyguards to open fire on a car that was blocking his way did not help.
Yet, little could, or still can, dampen his incorruptible legacy.