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With India in the throes of yet another general election, the role of the Election Commission (EC) in curbing electoral malpractices and money power is yet again in the spotlight. From yoga guru Ramdev to Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) Gujarat strongman Amit Shah, the EC has had to crack the whip, time and again, to keep the candidates and those campaigning for them on a tight leash.

Gone are the days when the EC and the Chief Election Commissioner (CEC) used to be mere constitutional rubber stamps with little or no teeth to bite into political desperados running amok in the electoral arena.

And the moment one thinks of EC activism in India, the one name that comes to mind is that of Tirunellai Narayana Iyer Seshan, 81, better known as T.N. Seshan — the tenth CEC whose 1991-1996 tenure at Nirvachan Sadan (EC headquarters) in New Delhi left an indelible mark of dignity and professionalism on the office of the CEC.

Born on May 15, 1932, Seshan completed his graduation from Madras Christian College and went on to study Public Administration at Harvard University, from where he obtained a masters. He joined the elite IAS cadre as a trainee in 1955.

In 1991, Seshan was named the CEC — a post that gave him maximum recognition as a bureaucrat and accorded to the office of the CEC a hitherto unknown aura of respectability and seriousness. It was as the CEC that Seshan, for the first time, made the Indian voter aware of the fact that the electoral “Code of Conduct” was not just a theoretical edifice to be framed and hung as a trophy on the walls of party offices, but it was a potent reference point in terms of stringent dos and don’ts that political parties ought to adhere to under all circumstances in order to avoid being caught on the wrong side of the law.

Seshan was the first CEC whose insistence on making the Voter’s Identity Card mandatory for all elections resulted in that piece of plastic card emerging as a game changer in the world’s largest democracy. Apart from making the state and union governments, and political parties realise that once a notification for an election is issued, it is the EC that is going to call the shots, Seshan stirred a hornet’s nest by throwing the rule book at political parties regarding furnishing of detailed accounts for funding of election campaigns. “I do not have the powers to control the functioning of a political party, but I can control the way elections are conducted in India. That is within my powers,” Seshan had once said in a television interview.

From deploying central forces to assigning independent poll observers, Seshan’s dogged determination to cleanse the electoral system of criminals and financial malpractices often saw him on a collision course with not just political outfits but even the union government. The fallout was that the law was amended to make room for the appointment of joint commissioners. It was done in an attempt to clip the wings of high-fliers such as Seshan but couldn’t because the Supreme Court of the country ruled that the CEC would, in no way, be bound to follow the advice of the joint commissioners.

“Show me one instance where I have done anything that is not stated in the Constitution about the powers of the Election Commission and I will quit” — this was one of Seshan’s favourite punchlines. His succinct one-liners made him quite a hit with the audience at various talk shows and social gatherings. “Tu cheez bari hai bhrasht bhrasht” (bloke, you are very corrupt) was one such cheeky comment — a rip-off of a popular Bollywood number.

He was once invited to address a batch of probationers at the Lal Bahadur Shastri National Academy of Administration (LBSNAA) in Mussoorie. In his opening remarks to the budding IAS officers, Seshan had famously said: “You all will probably never earn more than what some panwallahs (paan sellers) do”. No marks for guessing why he was never again invited by the government to speak at the LBSNAA.

But Seshan now leads a quiet retired life with wife Jayalakshmi at their residence on St Mary’s Road in south Chennai, miles away from media glare. Like former IAS officer Arvind Kejriwal, the convener of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), he too had once eyed a career in active politics, but his efforts came a cropper — losing to K.R. Narayanan in the presidential polls in 1997 and to BJP’s L.K. Advani as a Congress candidate in Gandhinagar in the 1999 Lok Sabha elections.

Seshan’s efforts to symbolically wield a broom to sweep electoral malpractices away helped create a whole new cult of EC activism in India and the trend seems to have come a full circle with Kejriwal’s AAP actually adopting the “broom” as its electoral symbol.

What he said:

  • Show me one instance where I have done anything that is not stated in the Constitution about the powers of the Election Commission, and I will quit.
  • Do you think I should allow politicians to commit dacoity on democracy?
  • [To P.V. Narasimha Rao] Mr Prime Minister, the only offices I aspire to now are those of the president and prime minister of India and, to my advantage, both are occupied.
  • Give me ten years and I can make Mera Bharat [my India] mahaan [great] again. It will take me ten years, no more, but do you have the courage for it?