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His tenure, a watershed in Indian democracy

T N Seshan was among the colourful civil servants remembered for reforming India’s election process. In his tenure as the head of the Election Commission (EC), he understood fully the responsibilities and powers of the EC for the conduct of free and fair elections. Happily, he used the power effectively!

In the pre-Seshan era, elections, especia-lly in Bihar and UP, were marred by violence, booth capturing and manipulation of voting. Seshan took bold to ensure close supervision, monitoring and security. He countermanded elections for fraudulent practices. The system of supervision by independent observers, command over security forces and the bureaucracy by the EC, close scrutiny of election expenses of the candidates and the parties and checking malpractices at different levels made his tenure a watershed in Indian democracy. His colleagues and successors at the EC continued with such decisive actions.

India elections have become a model for several other democracies. Thank you, Seshan.

Varied experience…

Seshan was articulate and forthright in his views. He belonged to the Madras/Tamil Nadu cadre of IAS and has handled varied portfolios that ranged from district administration, to transport, industry, agriculture and other departments. A colleague of his refers to his thorough efficiency in planning and execution.
Seshan had long stints with large organisations like the Department of Atomic Energy, Department of Space and ONGC. He had his quota of abrupt and arbitrary transfers.

There is little to remember of his tenure in Tamil Nadu. His real ascent is seen in his stints at Delhi; he was more visible as Secretary – Environment, as one involved in the formation of Special Protection Group for Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and later as Secretary – Defence.
Perhaps worried over the ‘sky-high’ powers of Seshan as the Chief of EC, the government decided on expanding the EC with two more Commissioners.

The flexible dharma of civil service…

On the eve of his retirement, Seshan’s authority and articulation were in full bloom. I remember the several interviews in television and the mass media in which Seshan was the commander with most of his interviewers overawed by his dominant personality.

For a change, Seshan was put on the mat by a more professional NDTV team. The interviewers had done their homework well and pointed to his inconsistencies: as Secretary of Environment, he shot down the proposal of constructing houses near the Mumbai beach for naval officers; later, as Defence Secretary he did not have any qualms in clearing the same, over-ruling objections from the Environment Ministry. They asked how?

Without batting an eyelid Seshan explained: “the dharma of Civil service is conditioned by the chair the officer occupied at a given point of time! Reminds one of G B Shaw’s, Alfred Doolittle of My Fair Lady Fame? ‘Can’t afford morals. Guv’nor!’

Need for another Seshan for more election reforms…

Even while Seshan brought about spectacular reforms asserting the power of the EC, the process is far from complete. The endless procession of elections and their humongous costs contribute to frequent paralysis of governance and decision making and huge increase in expenditure. A recent CMS report estimates expenditure on Lok Sabha polls in 2019 in excess of Rs 55,000 crore compared with around Rs 9000 crore incurred in 1998. Even this estimate appears grossly underestimated. This essentially means shutting out the prospects for aspirants other than our Jagan Reddys, Paari Vendars, A C Shanmugams, Jagathrakshakans et al; and by the ingenuous Thirumangalam formula of money-for-votes. CECs like N Gopalaswami and Nasim Zaidi admit to helplessness in tackling these. Should we pray for a rebirth of T N Seshan to tackle these?

After retirement, Seshan engaged himself in odd and sundry activities. Propped by several parties in opposition to the Congress, he contested for the post of President in 1997 and lost. He was pitted against BJP’s L K Advani from Gandhi Nagar, Gujarat for the Lok Sabha elections of 1999 and lost that too. I also remember his serving as an adviser to Jeppiaar and lobbying for several of his educational projects through the HRD ministry. A strange amalgam of the sublime and the silly!

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