Former Chief Election Commissioner TN Seshan nee Tirunellai Narayana Iyer Seshan is best remembered as the man who cleaned up elections in India and ushered in electoral reforms.
Born in Palakkad, Kerala, the youngest of six siblings, his father was a district court lawyer. Obtaining his Bachelor of Science Honours degree in Physics from the Madras Christian College, he passed the Indian Administrative Service exam from the 1955 Tamil Nadu cadre. He did a Masters’ in public administration at Harvard University on an Edward S. Mason Fellowship in 1968.
After serving in various positions in then Madras State and in various ministries of the Central Government, he was promoted as the 18th Cabinet Secretary in 1989.
He was appointed the 10th Chief Election Commissioner of India in 1990 and held the post till 1996. Elections in India at the time was all about money and muscle power, and the Commissioners before him could not ensure adherence of the Model Code of Conduct, happy to just announce election results.
He redefined the status and visibility of the Election Commission of India, by largely ending malpractices. He appointed special election observers in all States to watch the election process and ‘check for incendiary campaign speeches, voter intimidation, vote-stealing and other tactics often associated with electoral violence. He fixed election schedules in a staggered fashion to help station security forces and rule out then-infamous ‘booth capturing’.
He also clamped down on election spendings. He prohibited ferrying people to vote, bribing, and liquor distribution. He introduced Voter IDs for all eligible voters, and cracked the whip on the use of government funds and machinery for campaigning and appealing to voters’ caste or communal feelings, use of places of worship for campaigns, and use of loudspeakers and high volume music without prior written permission.
Seshan`s slew of initiatives tamed politicians and proved to be a nemesis for political parties, by throwing the rule book at violators. He proved that he was nobody’s pet. He had asserted “I am only doing what the law wants me to do. No less or more. If you don’t like the law, then change it, but till the law exists, I will ensure it is not broken”.
However seen as too much of a hurdle by the political class, it was during his tenure that two additional Election Commissioners were appointed by the Centre to clip his wings.
In July 1997, a year after he retired as CEC, he unsuccessfully contested the Presidential election against K.R. Narayanan, and two years later, again lost the Gandhinagar parliamentary constituency, as the Congress candidate against the then BJP Union Home Minister L.K. Advani.
For “his resolute actions to bring order, fairness, and integrity to elections in India, the world’s largest democracy”, Seshan received the 1996 Ramon Magsaysay award. He also got the 5 Lakh Sulabh Honest Man of the Year Award which he sunk into the Deshbhakt (Patriot) Trust he set up with like-minded people for social reforms.
He was transparent, articulate and incorruptible, though his style and action were somewhat controversial. It earned him many detractors, who thought of him as a dictatorial, megalomaniac, authoritarian, egotistic, eccentric, publicity-hungry, ambitious man with fascist tendencies.
His religious beliefs too blinded him to reason and often got the better of him.
But people also knew a softer, upright side that is difficult to capture except in anecdotes. To the public he was a hero. And he revelled in that status.
A polyglot, Seshan lived a quiet retired life, devoting most of his time to the Internet, and to his library of over 1,000 books.
On the hard disk of his computer rested Seshan’s autobiography. “I have written it. But I am not planning to publish it since it will hurt many people. I wrote it just for my satisfaction,” he had said.
He passed away, aged 86, at his Chennai residence, following a cardiac arrest. A widower, he is survived by his adopted daughter Srividya and family.