BIOGRAPHY of T.N. Seshan- the man who transformed indian election
Eccentric, abrasive, publicity hungry, possessor of a remarkable ego, overbearing—these are but some of the descriptions made by supporters and detractors alike of T. N. Seshan. Beyond these negative words is the recognition that Seshan is also a revolutionary of sorts, hardworking, an effective administrator, an able bureaucrat, a man for democracy, a hero of the intellectuals and middle classes, clean and honest. His life has been wracked with controversies ever since he went into public service in 1955. Yet, beyond the controversies were accomplishments that earned for him recognition both from his superiors and from the public at large, especially during his tenure as India’s chief election commissioner from 1990 to 1996.
Why was he considered a hero in some quarters but hated in others? What was so important about the Election Commission and elections in India in general?
India prides itself on its democratic tradition. Though there are some imperfections, the country’s electoral process has run smoothly enough to change leadership peacefully since the birth of the Republic in 1947. Elections have ensured the accountability of the government to its citizens. An important gauge in the vibrancy of India’s democracy is the participation of the electorate in elections. The marked growth of the Indian electorate, from some 173 million voters in 1952 to over 602 million in 1998 (a figure representing 62 percent of the population), shows the popularity of elections from the village to the national level, despite India’s great diversity of languages, religions, and ethnic groups. The ballot has been an important ingredient in the making of democracy in India. Under the Indian Constitution, elections are supervised by election commissioners. During the early decades of Indian democracy, eight commissioners bore this daunting responsibility. The ninth brought significant reforms to the system. This commissioner was T. N. Seshan.
Who is T. N. Seshan? His life and times and, in particular, his career in the Indian Administrative Service (IAS) provide clues to the man’s remarkable contributions to the electoral process of India in the 1990s.
Seshan’s character unfolded as he moved from his birthplace in the village of Palghat (also spelled Palakkad), in the State of Kerala, to Tamil Nadu and Madras and as he held a variety of official posts until he was assigned to Delhi, where he held very senior positions.
Seshan was born to a family of Brahmans who had come from the southern tip of India and traveled westwards to Kerala in search of water, finally settling in Palghat some four hundred years ago. Palghat then comprised ninety-two Brahman villages called agraharams. In the traditional caste system, the Brahmans belonged to the highest caste, the priestly class. In contemporary times, with the caste system no longer recognized in the Constitution of India, Brahmans have entered different occupations. The Palghat Brahmins, says Seshan, came to excel in four fields, as civil servants and musicians, cooks and crooks.
Seshan classified his family as coming from the “bottom quarter of the middle class.” His father, an adventurous type, finished his bachelor of arts degree at Palghat College, taught for two years at the Basel Evangelical Mission High School run by Swiss missionaries, and then went to Madras to study law. His mother came from a “big shot” family, he says. She finished middle school and married at sixteen. From this union came six children, two boys and four girls, with Seshan being the youngest. His brother, who was eleven years his senior, was a role model, but the difference in their ages placed a certain distance between them. His sisters, however, doted on him.
The law practice of Seshan’s father made it necessary for the family to move from their home village of Tirunellai into the town of Palghat, which was the administrative center for the subdistrict. There they lived in an “extraordinarily huge and beautiful house.” Seshan attended the Basel Evangelical Mission High School. Describing himself as a bookworm and an introvert, he liked to play chess and showed little interest in physical exercise. He enjoyed physics and engineering but also read Shakespeare, Wordsworth, Bacon, and Byron. He chose the science stream and made good scores for engineering. But after being refused admission to the four engineering schools in the area, he decided to study physics at Madras Christian College, which was run by Scottish Presbyterian missionaries.
While Seshan was in high school, in the mid-1940’s, the freedom movement in India became intense. Led by Mohandas K. Gandhi, the movement had taken root with the Indian masses and, with the end of the Second World War, Indian nationalists took to the streets to demand independence. The Indian National Congress was at the forefront of the movement, with Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru as its leaders.
Seshan shared his family’s belief that the British should leave India, but he also shared their view that the British were “evenhanded and fair.” He bore them no personal anger. Seshan himself read Gandhi, but he did not take an active part in the demonstrations.
The British left their imprint on the Indian educational system, with university learning carried out in English. However, elementary and high school education was generally provided in local languages. High school was followed by an intermediate stage of two years, which served as a “bridge” to learning in English. The local dialect in Kerala was Talayalam, a combination of Tamil and Malayalam. Seshan’s fluency in Talayalam made it easier for him to learn Tamil and Malayalam. It was through Malayalam that he learned Sanskrit and English. He was eventually able to speak Hindi, Sanskrit, Kanada, Marathi, and Gujarati as well.
Seshan spent three years at Madras Christian College for the BS Honors degree. He boarded at Selaiyur Hall where he had a single room and studied interminably, finishing in only three years a program designed around a four-year syllabus and earning a master’s degree along the way. All the while, Seshan maintained his status as an honor student. But this was at the cost of his social life. As a bookworm, he described his life as “hostel morning, evening, and night.”
With little opportunity in the early 1950s for a job as a scientist, Seshan accepted an offer to teach at his college for three years (1952–1955). He eventually left teaching because of the “pathetic” salary, he says. He took and topped the police service examination in 1953 and the administrative service examination in 1954. In 1955 he joined the IAS as a trainee.
The IAS, as a federal service, participates in both the central and state governments. Appointments as IAS officers are first allotted to India’s states but do not preclude appointments at the federal level. With the centralized administrative division of the states into districts down to the villages, Seshan’s IAS career moved from the village to the state of Tamil Nadu, to Madras, and finally to offices in the central government in Delhi.
From being a trainee in the Academy of Administration in Delhi, Seshan became an apprentice administrator, as assistant collector for one year at Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu. At the academy, his initial training covered the constitution, the principles of public administrative law, Hindi, civil and criminal procedure, and even horseback riding. In the field itself, training centered on three levels: (1) revenue administration, (2) land administration, and (3) the exercise of magisterial jurisdiction. In revenue administration, the official starts at the village level, moves on to a group of villages, and rises from one position to another until he becomes a deputy collector. Land administration involves surveying, forestry, and agriculture. Magisterial jurisdiction involves hearing and settling simple cases and leads eventually to “first-class powers” that enable one to send someone to jail for as long as seven years.
Seshan’s first posting was as subcollector in Dindigul, Madurai District, Tamil Nadu, where he came to exercise the responsibilities of a “comprehensive executive,” taking charge of the subdistrict’s water supply and rations and performing other duties above and beyond the subcollector’s usual revenue, judicial, and law-and-order functions.
It was in this early post that Seshan first showed his strong character, by implementing the law despite interference from a politician. A harijan (or Untouchable) married to the president of the local Congress Party was arrested for embezzlement. A minister on a visit to the area wanted the harijan released, but Seshan stood his ground despite being chastised and scorned. By doing his job well and continuing to provide security surreptitiously for the minister in a communist-influenced village he was visiting, Seshan managed to keep his post.
In 1958, Seshan was moved to Madras as director of programs and deputy secretary in the Secretariat for Rural Development, a post he held for four years. The program, called Panchayat Tirad, was patterned after the American Community Development Movement introduced by the United States ambassador to India Chester Bowles and adapted by Prime Minister Pandit Nehru. The panchayat is the traditional village administrative institution, which in ancient times was independent of the central government and in which caste rules were practiced. In Madras, Seshan was part of the team that drafted rules for the program; he also supervised projects in areas as varied as agriculture, animal husbandry, women’s institutions, and children’s needs. Aided by three other directors, he reported to the development commissioner.
It was a goal of the Panchayat Tirad to decentralize the administration of rural development. The bureaucracy of India is highly structured, however, and Seshan quickly discerned that this aspect of the Panchayat Tirad program was bound to fail. Among other results of the effort, district politicians became more influential than state-level politicians; the role of IAS officers was also reduced. In the end, Seshan observes, the very people involved in administering the project conspired against its continuation.
It was during his tenure with the Secretariat for Rural Development that Seshan married Jayalakshmi. This occurred after his father received astrological information about several other women who were being considered candidates to be his bride. Seshan’s family was immersed in astrology, which is common in India especially in the matter of selecting marriage partners. Jayalakshmi’s horoscope was judged most propitious and, despite a prediction that the marriage would be childless, Seshan married her in 1959, about a month after they first met.
In 1962, Seshan became involved in a quarrel with a politically appointed superior that led to his transfer from the Secretariat. In the course of a single day, as his angry secretary and minister tried to figure out what to do with him, he was ordered consecutively to report to units supervising small savings programs, the welfare of backward classes, and women’s welfare. Seshan calls this incident serendipitous because, in the end, he was appointed director of transport for the city of Madras. His good reputation had evidently reached the ears of then minister of industry and transport Ramaswami Venkataraman, who asked for him to manage the public buses of the bustling city. As a consequence, for two and a half years Seshan ran three thousand buses daily and supervised the department’s forty thousand staff members. This experience, he says, helped him to deal with a wide variety of people and circumstances in his future career.
After Madras, Seshan was appointed collector of Madurai District, Tamil Nadu; he assumed the post in December 1964. A collector is the chief administrator of a district who exercises revenue-collecting functions as well as judicial ones. Seshan held similar responsibilities as a subcollector in Dindigul; now his mandate covered the entire district and he enjoyed greater administrative independence. For Seshan, this was a most satisfying job and another training ground for higher responsibilities. The work required him to run “all kinds of things” and, on occasion, to meet with and defy crowds. In fact, a highlight of his term in Madurai was a disturbance that lasted for several months in connection with a protest over the use of Hindi as the official language.
After two and a half years in Madurai District, Seshan won an Ed Mason Fellowship to Harvard University, where he earned a master’s degree in public administration in 1968. He and his wife enjoyed their North American stay and took a Greyhound bus tour of several states after Seshan’s graduation. But as strict vegetarians, they found eating in the United States trying.
After returning from his trip abroad, Seshan was appointed to the first in a series of senior Government of India positions in 1969, beginning at the Department of Atomic Energy, which is directly under the prime minister’s office. There he served as secretary to the Atomic Energy Commission. Working with the commission’s chief, an industrialist, Seshan learned new management techniques; one of these, he says, was how “conflict can be used to generate results.” When he was transferred to the position of joint secretary at the Department of Space, under the Ministry of Science and Technology, where he served between 1972 and 1976, he was able to make good use of his growing skills in managing people, money, and resources.
The Government of India requires that officials take periodic breaks from federal service to return to state service, so in 1976 Seshan returned to Tamil Nadu to serve concurrently as the state’s secretary of industries and of agriculture. This was a short stint, but it gave him insight into the continuing deterioration in the relationship between civil servants and politicians, a problem he had already encountered as a junior officer. As Seshan saw it, the problem arose from political interference with the civil administration. There were no clear rules. An IAS officer dealing with a domineering minister could respond in three ways: (1) confront the minister and disobey, (2) collude with the minister in return for certain benefits, or (3) cooperate and try to work out a compromise. The trend was not a good one. What Seshan feared was a situation in which civil servants, instead of providing evenhanded governance and upholding the rule of law, increasingly joined “the current politicians in looting the State.”
After a “massive quarrel” with the chief minister of Tamil Nadu (as Seshan himself recalls it), he resigned and was reassigned to Delhi as a member of the Oil and Natural Gas Commission, where he was in charge of personnel. This post lasted for the next two years, after which he was reassigned to the Ministry of Space as additional secretary; in this capacity from 1980 to 1985, he involved himself in space research. Then, at the invitation of Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, he became secretary of the Ministry of Environment and Forests, a position he held from 1985 to 1988.
Seshan converted India’s environment ministry into one of the most powerful in the government, using as his philosophical foundation the Vedic principle that the environment involves all five mahabutas, the primary elements that make up the universe: earth, water, fire, air, and space. As secretary, he opposed two major hydroelectric dam projects: the Tehri Dam and the Sardar Sarovar Dam in Narmada. In the first case, two expert committees rejected the proposed dam and Seshan upheld their decision. The government overruled his ruling, however, since the project was connected to coveted foreign aid from the Soviet Union. Seshan also wanted the Narmada project dropped. Again the government proceeded anyway, but only after making certain concessions regarding the dam’s environmental impact. For environmentalists, this was at least a limited victory. Moreover, it demonstrated Seshan’s conviction. As one observer put it, he set “the trend for the department of saying ‘no,’ and saying it firmly when it came to environmental clearance for dubious projects.” People came to admire this quality in Seshan, even though he was several times overruled by his superiors.
Seshan’s close association with Rajiv Gandhi began when he was asked to investigate an attempt on the prime minister’s life. Rajiv liked the report and asked Seshan to become secretary of Internal Security, a post he held until 1989, in addition to continuing as environment secretary and, after 1988, secretary of the Ministry of Defence. Ten months after joining the defense ministry, Seshan was named cabinet secretary, proof of the trust that Prime Minister Gandhi placed in him. When Rajiv Gandhi lost the premiership in December 1989, Seshan was transferred by the new prime minister to membership in the nondescript Planning Commission. Indirectly, this demotion led Seshan to his most important public task.
Shortly after Gandhi’s defeat and Seshan’s transfer, Subramaniam Swamy, a friend who was then law minister to Prime Minister Chandra Shekhar, offered Seshan the position of chief election commissioner. Seshan’s first impulse was to reject the offer but after consulting Rajiv Gandhi, then President R. Venkataraman, his elder brother, and his father-in-law, he decided to accept the offer and assumed the position in December 1990.
In India, state and national elections are managed by the Election Commission (EC), an independent body empowered by the Constitution. The chief election commissioner (CEC), appointed for a six-year term, has the “responsibility for the superintendence, direction and control of the preparation of the electoral rolls for, and the conduct of, all elections to the office of the President and Vice President of India.” The CEC sees to it that the elections for which he or she is responsible are free and fair. While independent, the EC receives help from the government in the conduct of elections. This is mandated by Article 326 of the Constitution, which states that, “The President or the governor of a state shall, when requested by the Election Commission, make available all the [necessary] staff.”
What was the state of India’s electoral system at the time of Seshan’s takeover? During his early weeks on the job, Seshan identified over one hundred common electoral malpractices. These included the preparation of inaccurate election rolls, mistakes in setting up polling stations, coercive electioneering, spending more than the legal limit to campaign for a parliamentary position, using goons to snatch polling booths, and general abuses of authority. Moreover, state elections were often marred by violence perpetrated between competing political camps.
Previous election commissioners had conducted the elections on a logistical basis and stopped short at resolution of electoral disputes. Seshan went beyond this and introduced election reforms in defiance of political pressures, even going to the extent of challenging the government to question his constitutional authority. (As a constitutional appointee, the election commissioner is independent of the Indian Administrative Service.)
Seshan’s reform initiatives can be grouped into the following categories: (1) insuring the autonomy and integrity of the Election Commission, (2) empowering the voters, (3) reforming or changing electoral procedures, and (4) changing the election laws.
Seshan began by cleaning up the image of the Commission’s office itself. On his first day, he required his staff members to remove from the walls all pictures of gods and goddesses—in order to project the secular nature of the office. Then, during a memorable “reign of terror,” he restored office discipline, banning long lunch breaks and reading in the library during office hours and instructing the maintenance staff to keep the toilets and water taps spotlessly clan.
In resolving electoral cases, Seshan acted swiftly, guided by his own confidant sense of right and wrong. His predecessor had been notorious for thoroughness and, 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 chief election commissioner, Seshan reviewed more than forty thousand alleged cases of false election returns and disqualified fourteen thousand potential candidates for public office. He was impervious to the demands of politicians, so much so that, in 1992 when he cancelled elections in Bihar and the Punjab, some of them tried to impeach him. The Speaker of Parliament, however, overruled the move.
The gargantuan task of executing national elections in India involves, among other things, running 825,000 voting booths; some five million personnel are needed in addition to a large security force. India meets this need at election time by temporarily deputizing state employees to the Election Commission. Seshan observed that many of these employees took their duties lightly. In 1992, he began cracking down. When state officials objected, Seshan argued that once these officials were assigned to the Election Commission, they fell under his jurisdiction. It was essential that they obey the directives of the Commission and perform their duties honestly and efficiently. The very authority of the Commission was at stake, he said. The issue was not only the efficiency of the Commission but also its independence. Many local bureaucracies were under the thumb of local politicians and so-called political lords, or bosses. For elections to be fair—and to be seen as fair—it was essential to neutralize the influence of these powerful local actors. This is why Seshan insisted on controlling the deputized personnel strictly.
The state officials and local political bosses fought back, of course, and this power struggle reached the highest levels of the government. Eventually, the Supreme Court itself ruled in favor of Seshan’s authority over the deputized personnel. The positive result was to curb the illegal “commands” of local officials and political bosses and to make it easier for deputized election workers to report infringements of the election rules.
Seshan’s tussles with the bureaucracy came to a head over the 1993 elections in Tamil Nadu, where violence threatened. Seshan ordered the central government to deploy security forces in Tamil Nadu and ordered the state to make full use of them—and to file a report of compliance with the Election Commission at a specific date. In making this order, Seshan found himself at odds with India’s home minister, who stated that “states could not have a force foisted on them.” When he refused to execute Seshan’s order, Seshan decreed that no elections would be held in the country until the government recognized the power of the Election Commission. This standoff took political leaders “by storm,” he says. Again, the issue was referred to the Supreme Court. Before the case could be heard, however, Seshan relented and rescinded his order banning elections. After having made his point, this tactical withdrawal earned him credit in the eyes of the electorate.
To curtail Seshan’s powers, in October 1993, Parliament amended the Constitution and added two additional commissioners to share power with the chief election commissioner. Appointed were M. S. Gill and G. V. C. Krisnamurthy, both staunch government men who were expected to neutralize Seshan’s independent streak. Seshan fought back by challenging the new appointments in the Supreme Court. Specifically, Seshan’s petition challenged Parliament’s authority to make the power of the two new commissioners equal to that of the chief commissioner. The Court agreed. It issued an interim order giving the chief commissioner complete control over the work of the Election Commission in giving instructions to the staff and to its collaborating agencies. While the chief may consult the added commissioners, the Court said, he was not bound to follow their advice. Seshan’s authority prevailed, for the time being at least. His victory was applauded by many Indian citizens who were disillusioned with politics-as-usual and happy to witness someone actually clip the wings of the country’s politicians. For them, Seshan became a role model.
But the interim order did not hold. The case dragged on and on as the feuding commissioners went public with their affidavits, causing the Court to admonish them for their use of “non-court, non-parliamentary language.” Final judgment on Seshan’s petition was reserved for the five-judge Constitution Bench headed by the chief justice himself. On the advice of the constitutional bench on February 2, 1996, the Supreme Court finally ruled that the position of the chief commissioner vis-�-vis the two other commissioners was “no more than that of the first among equals”: the principle of majority rule should henceforth prevail.
Queried for his reaction to the Supreme Court decision, Seshan said that it would make the Election Commission “impotent and a eunuch.” He continued to assert that his actions in defense of the constitutional authority of the Commission and its chief commissioner were designed solely to ensure that the Commission was an effective instrument for safeguarding free and honest elections.
Another avenue for safeguarding elections was to empower voters. Seshan made great strides during his incumbency in promoting public awareness about voters’ rights. In speeches, he exhorted citizens to vote; this effort was complemented by a National Voter Awareness Campaign. The Commission also circulated publications on voter’s rights and duties as well as the steps to be taken to strengthen democracy and the role of citizens in cleaning up corrupt practices. Voters were constantly reminded that it was their responsibility to safeguard the freedom and fairness of elections and to choose leaders wisely. Seshan went on speaking tours all over India to campaign against electoral corruption, winning plaudits for his eloquence.
In order to circumvent the rampant practice of voter impersonation, in 1992 Seshan called for the government to issue photo identification cards to all legal voters. The politicians bitterly protested this move, claiming that it was unnecessary and 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 were not issued cards, but the Supreme Court eventually interceded and ruled that voting was an inherent right of citizens, thus voting could not be postponed indefinitely because identification cards were lacking. Even so, because of Seshan’s insistence, the government began issuing ID cards and by 1996 two million voters already held them.
Being aware of yet other anomalies that had not been remedied by previous election commissioners, Seshan also introduced electoral reforms in the areas of election expenses, ostentatious campaign displays, and residency requirements.
Elections in general were costly for both the government and the candidates. On both the federal and state levels, misuse of unaccounted funds was a common problem, due oftentimes to shady deals between politicians and the administrative personnel under their employ who assisted officially in the conduct of elections. To curtail this, Seshan instituted Election Inspection Observers, drawn from senior officers of the national tax bureau. They were assigned in each constituency to check poll expenses on a day-to-day basis. This had the effect of limiting egregious election expenses and of minimizing the use of government funds to buy votes. More importantly, it deprived the ruling party of government machinery during elections. Seshan was also explicit in condemning the common practice by which the party in power compromised government officials with promises on the eve of the elections.
In a broader effort to curb overspending by candidates, Seshan implemented Section 77 of the Representation of the People Act of 1951, which made it obligatory for candidates to keep accurate accounts of expenditures. He then added the following requirements to compensate for the law’s “toothless” procedures: (1) all election expenses must be explicitly accounted for, (2) the accounts must be filed accompanied by an affidavit of oath (making it possible to prosecute candidates for giving false information), and (3) the accounts must be certified by the district election officer. Next, Seshan established campaign spending limits: 20,000 to 40,000 rupees for assembly seats and 150,000 to 170,000 rupees for parliament. After Seshan implemented the limit, Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao’s government attempted to raise the expense ceiling to what it called a more realistic level. This drew a response from Seshan that any violation of the ceiling would not be pardoned. Indeed, during the national elections of 1993, he monitored electoral expenses around the clock from a control room at Commission headquarters, where one of his officers was assigned to each state. Altogether, 1,488 candidates for Lok Sabha (House of the People, the lower house of Parliament) were disqualified for three years because they failed to submit their expense accounts. This show of exemplary regulation provided a positive incentive for politicians to obey the rules.
One of Seshan’s more controversial policies concerned ostentatious election displays. He banned election graffiti outright (defaced walls had to be cleaned by the candidates) as well as noisy campaign convoys, blaring loudspeakers, and wall writing and posters on public and private property. Responses were varied. The Deccan Chronicle reported that the “Seshan effect” dampened the enthusiasm of the contesting parties because of the “near absence of color and sound which dominated election times.” The Chronicle also reported the dismay of an influential candidate in Nellore, who preferred to use propaganda to bolster his candidacy but who, because of Seshan’s rules, now had to go to the slums and actually meet voters. The same report called Seshan a “snob” who was “allergic to the normal exhibition of ‘popular’ enthusiasm and support during election times.”
But other observers noted that the “Seshan effect” had disciplined the polls, resulting in less noise, cleaner walls, and a more limited use of “money power.” It had, moreover, ushered in a new era of campaigning that required new strategies such as door-to-door campaigning. While the politicians worried that their candidates might not win without the usual fanfare, many commoners were happy to be spared blaring loudspeakers and garish, multicolored posters. One measure of the mass appeal of Seshan’s tough measures was the school in Karnataka that unveiled a large portrait of the chief election commissioner on the school grounds.
As for residency requirements, Seshan invoked a 1950 law to propose that only bona fide residents of a state can represent the state in the Rajya Sabha (upper house of Parliament). Under his ruling, candidates who claimed falsely to be residents were guilty of the crime of perjury. The legislators were not happy and there was, in fact, a move to drop the residency clause for Rajya Sabha members. But the government chose not to act for fear that the motion would not pass. The ruling stood. For Seshan, democracy had won.
Though a very religious man, Seshan was against sectarian campaigning. He issued a five-page order stating that the Election Commission was “deeply concerned with the unabashed attempts by some candidates and political parties at exploiting narrow sentiments of certain sections of the electors based on community, caste, creed, race, language and region.” The Commission appointed special observers to monitor and report candidates trying to win support through these sentiments. The special observers were empowered to inspect political manifestos and to monitor the public speeches and utterances of candidates. The Commission warned that it would postpone elections and prosecute candidates who were found violating the order.
Among Seshan’s other innovations were the deployment of video teams during elections, the phasing of election dates for better supervision, and the relocation of certain polling stations for easier access to voters.
Many of Seshan’s more important reforms were in fact embodied in India’s Model Code of Conduct, an earlier reform effort of the mid-1970s. A series of electoral Dos and Don’ts, the Code had never been adopted. Among the Dos at election time were the continued provision of relief and rehabilitation measures in areas afflicted by floods, droughts, pestilence, and other natural calamities; the impartial provision of public spaces (including helipads) to all parties; the requirement that criticisms of candidates by their opponents be limited to their policies, programs, and past records; and the observation of restrictions on processions and the plying of vehicles on polling days.
The Don’ts of the Model Code forbade: using official vehicles, personnel, and machinery for electioneering; issuing advertisements at the government’s expense touting the achievements of the party in power; offering financial inducements to voters; criticizing any aspect of the private life of candidates (or party leaders) not connected with their public activities; using places of worship for election propaganda; and displaying posters, flags, symbols, or other propaganda materials near election booths on polling day. A variety of other corrupt practices was also prohibited.
Against the protest of politicians, Seshan implemented the Model Code as a Moral Code to be followed by government officials and politicians alike. Through the Model Code, he was able to implement electoral reforms strictly—or as his detractors had it, “harshly.” When faced with the charge that the Code had no legal sanction, Seshan’s defense was to say that explicit legal sanction was not required for one not to tell lies. No one can object, he said, if the government: (a) does not announce grants to gain favor from the electorate, (b) does not requisition government travelers’ bungalows for the use of their own supporters, and (c) does not use government aircraft and transportation for electioneering purposes.
His announcement that the “high and mighty” were not excluded from following the Model Code put him at loggerheads with chief state ministers, President Venkataraman, Prime Minister Narasimha Rao, and members of Parliament. Even his good friend Subramaniam Swamy, who had recommended him for the elections post, became Seshan’s “enemy” for a time. But Seshan remained unrepentant. He had only harsh words for IAS officers, whom he called “polished call girls” for prostituting their positions. About his country’s senior officials and politicians, he was breathtakingly outspoken. In the process, he managed to offend a great number of them.
Nevertheless, he was powerful and effective. For fear of Seshan’s wrath, politicians—a great many of them, in any case—became careful in their campaign speeches; they adopted new campaign strategies and ceased using illegal posters and other propaganda materials; they kept their speeches within the official time limit (monitored for Seshan by the police); and they became meticulous in accounting for their expenses and their use of public resources, such as official vehicles. For many common people, these changes were obviously a boon. The press hailed the disciplining of the polls. And even the political parties supported the enforcement of the Model Code, to the extent of suggesting that it be made into a “punitive law” to address excesses. In a 1995 poll taken for the Times of India, 94 percent of the respondents supported Seshan in strictly enforcing the Model Code for government workers, political parties, and candidates. On other related issues, 95 percent approved of his “no ID card, no vote” policy, while 94 percent supported his threat to disqualify candidates violating the prohibition of appealing to voters on the basis of religion, caste, or language. Additional evidence of his popularity with the people included the hundreds of supportive letters he received on a daily basis.
The net result of Seshan’s many reforms and innovations was the execution of clean and honest elections in India for the first time in many years. These reforms sowed panic among India’s politicians and received accolades from the general public. One key to his success was the effective and uniform enforcement of rules and laws; another was the creation of efficient electoral procedures; yet another was building voter awareness through widespread information campaigns.
It has been suggested that Seshan’s overall impact was institutional: strengthening the Election Commission to make it an effective arm of the state and making it possible for the reforms he instituted to be continued by future commissioners. Seshan, in his self-assessment, gave himself high marks (80 to 90 percent) for the viability of his changes in procedures, but lower marks (50 percent each) for protecting the autonomy of the Commission and voter awareness. He assigned himself a poor 10 percent for bringing about needed changes in the law. He is quite aware of the shortcomings of Indian democracy and of the structural weaknesses of the country’s government. In more than fifty years of existence, India’s democracy has shown great strides but, in his eyes, corruption will continue to haunt it for as long as “money power” prevails.
Seshan himself has eschewed this path. For a man who could have enriched himself in office and hobnobbed with the rich and the powerful, he and his wife live humbly and enjoy the simple things in life.