T N Seshan: The legendary electoral reformer

Poornima Joshi | Updated on November 11, 2019 Published on November 11, 2019

Photo of T.N. Seshan Published in BusinessLine on October 17, 1994

In his passing away late on Sunday night, the legendary T. N. Seshan stoked a collective memory that serves as a timely reminder of the ideals that institutional democracy ought to stand for. The autonomy of India’s electoral process owes a large debt to this exceptionally courageous man who infused the Election Commission with his extraordinary integrity and dignity for all times to come. At a time when autonomy of democratic institutions is being stretched to its limits, T. N. Seshan has invoked a higher yardstick in his death.

Born in Palakkad in 1932, Seshan joined Indian Administrative Service in 1955. He became the cabinet secretary in 1989. Considered close to the then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, Seshan was appointed Chief Election Commissioner during the Chandrasekhar Government in December, 1990 and presided over the elections through the turbulent 1990s’ when the coalition era threw up gritty, subaltern leaders such as Lalu Prasad Yadav in Bihar, Mulayam Singh Yadav in Uttar Pradesh who strained the boundaries of institutions. 

Having successfully conducted the 1991 Lok Sabha elections, Seshan stared down at the provincial satraps in all the troubled provinces where assembly elections were adjusted to the temperament of different coalition partners. In the six years where he was in office, there was not a single election where he did not leave his indelible mark on the process. He often said in interviews that he did not do anything on his own, but tried to implement the existing laws and rules on conducting the elections. 

Conducting polls in States like Uttar Pradesh and Bihar would have been a nightmare for the poll panel due to high rates of booth capturing and such violence. But Seshan provided the necessary psychological and logistical support to his officers as he led from the front; travelling across states ensuring that systems were in place even if it meant inviting wrath of many top leaders. With his steadfast commitment to a free and fair process, Seshan was often in confrontation with the Congress, the BJP, the Left parties and the Janata Dal during his tenure. 

He became one of the most popular civil servants of the country through his bold actions. He got Ramon Magsaysay award for his work. "Seshan’s initial analysis of his country’s electoral system revealed 150 specific abuses. When India’s politicians proved reluctant to legislate reforms, he launched a crusade of his own. Interpreting the constitutional mandate of the Election Commission as broadly as possible and stretching its legal powers to their maximum possible limits, Seshan set about cleansing the Augean stables of Indian democracy—one election after another," the award citation said.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi said Seshan was an outstanding civil servant. "He served India with utmost diligence and integrity. His efforts towards electoral reforms have made our democracy stronger and more participatory. Pained by his demise. Om Shanti," he tweeted. 

Congress President Sonia Gandhi expressed her condolences on the passing away of Seshan. "A seasoned civil servant who went up to serve as the Cabinet Secretary, Seshan will always be remembered for strengthening the Election Commission of India and pioneering many a far reaching electoral reforms," she said in a statement. 

Published on November 11, 2019
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