Seshan's legacy

Tirunellai Narayana Seshan, the indefatigable crusader for voters’ rights, passed away in Chennai at the age of 86 on Sunday. Seshan, a lifelong civil servant, rose in the Indian Administrative Service to the highest possible position, that of Cabinet Secretary, a post that he held until Rajiv Gandhi lost power in 1989, when he was moved to the Planning Commission. He spent the V P Singh government’s time in the Planning Commission but when Chandra Shekhar came to power with the Congress party’s backing, he was appointed Chief Election Commissioner (CEC). It was as CEC that Seshan came into his own, and became something of a national hero.

Prior to Seshan’s tenure, the Election Commission — an independent body according to the Constitution — was in many ways an arm of the government. Seshan ensured that it became de facto independent and not just de jure. He laid out a lengthy list of electoral malpractices and did not hesitate to pull up even Union minsters who appeared to be deviating from it. The 1993 elections across much of northern India, conducted under his supervision, were a landmark in the country’s electoral history. Even areas known for rampant malpractice and violence saw relatively free and fair elections. He pushed the government into ensuring that voter ID cards were handed out, and investigated elections to the Rajya Sabha that he felt might be contravening rules — even that of then finance minister Manmohan Singh. 

Seshan’s life and work is a reminder that even institutions with solid constitutional backing need persons of integrity if they are to carry out their designated function. However, once one such person invigorates the functioning of such an institution, it can continue to be effective even after that leader has moved on. This was the case with the Election Commission. While Seshan may have objected to the Commission becoming a three-person outfit, it added stability to the system and ensured that throughout the contested coalition era, the Commission was far more than a paper tiger. The question is, however, whether the fact that Seshan’s tenure came at the beginning of the coalition era is crucial to the story of the Commission. Unlike in the one-party state that India was in many ways — at least at the level of the Union government — prior to 1989, in the 1990s and 2000s, an independent Election Commission was a crucial arbiter and largely seen as a useful referee. 

India has now, once again, entered a period when coalitions are not essential for government at the central level. It is perhaps no coincidence that Seshan’s legacy is being lost, as the Election Commission finds itself increasingly under siege. Consider the fallout of the 2019 general elections: The member of the commission who dissented against the “clean chit” to the prime minister and current home minister for violations of the electoral code of conduct has found himself under attack by government agencies. Members of his family have been put under investigation. This intimidation will certainly have an effect on the Commission’s institutional independence going forward. It is to be hoped that future commissioners will nevertheless be able to summon some of Seshan’s indomitable spirit and maintain the Commission’s proud history of fighting for electoral fairness.


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