On this edition of Digging Deeper with Moneycontrol, we examine the TN Seshan effect, and what his legacy has been.
Rima M | Rakesh Sharma
Tirunellai Narayana Iyer Seshan is suddenly a towering presence once again in the discourse about elections and the credibility of the Election Commission of India. The now retired 1955 batch Indian Administrative Service (IAS) officer of Tamil Nadu cadre, is best remembered by Indians of a certain generation as a man who deep-cleaned the elections of the manipulative tactics and blatant opportunism employed by political leaders. In the process, he endeared himself to citizenry, while also offending politicians with his damning punch lines.
By cracking down upon malpractices, the 10th Chief Election Commissioner of India (1990–96) brought in sweeping reforms in the way elections were held. He had also earlier served as the 18th Cabinet Secretary of India in 1989. In 1996, he won the Ramon Magsaysay Award. Always a self-willed force, Seshan even contested for the post of the President of India in 1997 and lost to K.R. Narayanan.
On this edition of Digging Deeper with Moneycontrol, we examine the Seshan effect, and what his legacy has been. My name is Rakesh Sharma, and you are listening to Moneycontrol.
The wonder years
TN Seshan was born on 15 December 1932 in Thirunellai, Palakkad district, Kerala and eventually went on to study at Harvard University on Edward S. Mason Fellowship where he earned a master's degree in public administration. Interestingly, both he and E. Sreedharan, whom we now know as the Metro Man were classmates at BEM High School and Victoria College in Palakkad. Both of them were eligible to study Engineering in Kakinada (Jawaharlal Nehru Technological University). E. Sreedharan decided to pursue it, while T. N. Seshan decided to join MCC (Madras Christian College).
Another interesting bit of trivia. Seshan’s elder brother TN Lakshminarayanan was among the toppers in the very first batch of Indian Administrative Service (IAS).
In 1953, he was too young to appear for IAS but on a whim, sat for the Indian Police Service and stood first in India in the 1954 batch. The very next year, he joined the 1955 batch of IAS and was one of the top rankers. And very soon became a star administrator and became Cabinet Secretary and Member, Planning Commission of India, before being appointed the Chief Election Commissioner.
The wizard of transparency
As per government statistics, during TN Seshan’s tenure, booth-capturing incidents decreased to 255 in 1993 from 873 in 1991.
In a system that puts the onus of accountability on citizens rather than public servants and policy makers, Seshan was an authoritarian who demanded transparency from the electoral system and those who often misused it.
There was a time when media observers labelled the stern course corrector as "Al-Seshan“ but Seshan, in the final analysis, proved that he was nobody’s pet and strictly implemented the election code of conduct, indeed guarded the constitutional promise of free and fair elections.
Among the steps he took was that election officials would be drafted from states other than the one in the throes of polling to maintain impartiality.
Issuance of Voter IDs for all eligible voters came into being under his watch.
He imposed limits on candidates’ expenditure and made the election commission machinery autonomous by coming down hard on malpractices like bribing or intimidation of voters, distribution of liquor and other goodies during elections, the rampant use of official machinery for campaigning, misuse of communal and casteist sentiments or places of worship by politicians, and the use of blaring loudspeakers without prior written permission.
Then and now
And that brings us to the questions being raised about the Election Commission today and the man at the helm of affairs. Sunil Arora, in contrast to the often roaring Seshan, has proven to be a fairly unobtrusive presence in the din that is 2019.
How strong Seshan’s hold on the collective imagination is, is evident from the fact that every few years, the fake news of his death gets forwarded on WhatsApp and creates a social media storm.
The culture of fake news is so rampant now that one wonders how someone like Seshan would have dealt with it. Ironically, the first time the news of his supposed demise spread, even Union Minister of State Jitendra Singh shared the fake news on Twitter and also tagged the Press Information Bureau, along with five others including Finance Minister Arun Jaitley. His tweet was even retweeted by the then head of the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, Smriti Irani.
It goes without saying that the blatant disregard for Election Commission of India's Model Code of Conduct in these elections has made a large section of observers look back at the Seshan era wistfully.
The Model Code of Conduct is a set of guidelines issued by the Election Commission for political parties and candidates mainly with respect to speeches, polling day behaviour, transparency at polling booths, processions and general conduct.
On April 17, Former Chief Minister of Jammu and Kashmir Omar Abdullah stated that he hoped that the Election Commission would muster the courage to hold assembly elections in Jammu and Kashmir, so the state's people could get an opportunity to elect a new government.
He told NDTV, “I hope the Election Commission has the courage to go against what the BJP is trying to ensure here. I hope in this case, in this Election Commission, we see the shades of TN Seshan or past Chief Election Commissioners who didn't toe the government line and decided what was in the interest of the organisation.”
On April 17, 2019 again, Umesh Raghuvanshi wrote in Hindustan Times how a day after the Election Commission temporarily barred four leaders -- UP chief minister Yogi Adityanath, Union minister Maneka Gandhi, BSP chief Mayawati and SP leader Azam Khan -- from campaigning for violating model code of conduct, the focus was back on the powers that the Commission once enjoyed to ensure free and fair polls.
We quote, “The observations made by the representative of the Election Commission that “we found we have powers”, made in the Supreme Court, have become a point of discussion with many officers who recalled how the 10th chief election commissioner (CEC) of India TN Seshan (1990-96) stamped the Commission’s authority and ensured his words were treated as law by politicians and officers alike.”
Former chief secretary Alok Ranjan recalled in the piece how Seshan established the EC’s authority. He shared an interesting anecdote, “As CEC, he came on a visit to review preparations for elections in the early nineties. When the then UP chief electoral officer (CEO) Shaival Kumar Mukerjee presented his report, Sheshan said the report was not even worth using as a toilet paper. After this, Seshan de-notified the CEO.”
Remembering a meeting of district magistrates that Seshan had convened in New Delhi, Ranjan said: “I led a team of 10 district magistrates from Uttar Pradesh. A DM from Himachal Pradesh reached there three minutes late and apologised. Seshan asked him to leave immediately. At one point, Seshan turned to UP team and asked us to ensure that the chief minister follows the MCC in letter and spirit or else the Commission would ensure this.”
The piece also cites another former bureaucrat Surya Pratap Singh who recollected how on Seshan’s directives, he refused to allow landing of the then chief minister Mulayam Singh Yadav’s helicopter in Badaun.
Singh recalled and we quote, “Mulayam was scheduled to address a public meeting in Badaun but the MCC had come into force a day prior to it. This was the beginning of Seshan era. I enquired from the ECI whether to allow him to land in a government helicopter and I got a ‘no’ in reply. Following the directive, I did not allow the CM’s helicopter to land. The chopper was diverted to Moradabad where it finally landed. Mulayam was furious but I did my duty.”
Another retired officer, who did not wish to be named, said it was Seshan who made the EC a tough institution despite politicians who always wanted that they should be allowed to do whatever they like to win an election. Seshan showed the way the elections should be conducted, he said to HT.
We quote this anonymous source from the HT piece, “EC has the power to defer or countermand an election. If a candidate defies the ECI’s writ, a simple notice of why the polling in his/her constituency may not be deferred serves as a deterrent. If the election has been held and the CEC comes to know of irregularities, it has the power to countermand the election. The EC has now acted against star campaigners but a short-term ban will serve no purpose. The ban should be imposed for a longer duration.” He also said that Seshan ensured action against all the errant authorities, including governors of states.
Time for EC to rediscover its powers
On April, Navin B. Chawla wrote in The Hindu that post these elections, the Election Commission needs to take stock of several issues, including campaign funding. Chawla knows what he is talking about, as he is a former Chief Election Commissioner and the author of the eminently readable ‘Every Vote Counts’.
Writes he and we quote, “Having served as the Election Commission of India (EC) for five-and-a-half years during which I conducted the 2009 general election, I have an insider’s view, but of course am not privy to the inputs that the EC has and on which its decisions are made. As I have argued in my recent book, Every Vote Counts, several negative features of our electoral scene have worsened. Since the Model Code of Conduct came into effect, in just the first two phases this time, money power has so reared its ugly head that seizures made of unaccounted cash, liquor, bullion and drugs amounting to ₹2,600 crore have already surpassed the entire seizures made in the nine phases of the general election in 2014. Most depressingly, this includes huge hauls of drugs, the vast majority smuggled into Gujarat. Uttar Pradesh is awash with liquor. Tamil Nadu has seen the largest seizures of illicit cash —over ₹514 crore.”
These vast sums, he writes, intended to bribe or influence voters prove several things. The first is that these sums almost certainly represent only a fraction of current illegal spending, a tip of the iceberg as it were. He writes and we quote, “They have been detected by the EC’s machinery acting on the basis of tip-offs, or else by the vigilance of electoral officials in the States. Unfortunately, the bulk of illegal tranches of money, liquor or freebies would have reached their destination. Second, political players have refined their methods in being many steps ahead of the EC’s observers and their vigilance teams by moving their funds to their destinations even before the elections are announced. Does this not make a mockery of the statutory limit of ₹70 lakh that each Lok Sabha candidate has as his poll expenditure limit?”
Questions we need to ask
Chawla asks, when there is no transparency on how political parties collect or spend their funds, when limits of candidate spending are exceeded in every single case, then the time has come to debate whether we need to re-examine our rulebook.
He writes, “In order to supervise the matches in play, the EC has had to deploy over 2,000 Central observers for the entire duration, drawing them out from their ministries and departments at the cost of their normal work at the Centre and in the States. Thousands of vigilance squads are set up and must act on the information they receive, which is why the current level of seizures have already made this India’s most expensive general election yet. An intelligent guess may lead us to a final tally of spending in excess of ₹50,000 crore, the bulk of which is made up of illicit funding and spending.” As we said on our podcast on political spending, the film industry in India had total revenues (combining domestic and overseas collections, broadcast rights etc.) of around 15,000 crores. So election spending is more than three times the total revenues of the entire Indian film industry.
Navin Chawla further says, “It is by now clear as daylight that electoral bonds, far from enabling a legitimate and transparent means of political funding, have proved to be the reverse. The EC, in its own affidavit before the Supreme Court, has admitted as much. The Supreme Court’s order has made sure that full disclosure, albeit to the EC, has already effectively killed further funding along this route. Nothing is a better disinfectant for camouflaged funding than sunlight itself. With my experience this compels me to say that any serious reform with regard to funding must come from the EC itself, for it is very unlikely that any government will take an initiative in this direction.”
Chawla added that the EC must take stock after this election is over and convene a conference of all stakeholders, including of course all recognised political parties, both Central and State. But this should not be exclusively confined to them, for they will tend to support the status quo or they will be unable to reach consensus. The list of stakeholders must also include the best constitutional and legal minds in our country.
The taint of criminality
The Hindu piece also addresses the problem of candidates fielded with criminal antecedents. As the writer says, “The 16th Lok Sabha that has now passed into history, saw almost 30% of its members declaring, in their compulsory self-sworn affidavits, the list of criminal cases registered against them. They are also legally obliged to declare their wealth and their educational qualifications. This is the result of two vital orders passed by the Supreme Court in 2002-2003, the result of a battle that the Association for Democratic Reforms fought tenaciously. Unfortunately, in the first phase of this election, 12% of the candidates perforce declared that they had heinous cases pending, while in the second phase the figure was 11%. It may be noted that these cases include murder, attempt to murder, dacoity, kidnapping and rape.”
He recalls also how the 10th Chief Election Commissioner (CEC), T.N. Seshan once famously declared that “he ate politicians for breakfast” — made the country sit up and take note when he decided to level the playing field as never before. There is little doubt that he reminded the EC that it had powers inherently enshrined in Article 324 of the Constitution — powers so great that there is arguably no other electoral management body with similar powers.
Says the writer, “I learned this during my years as Election Commissioner, and these are the powers I exercised during the course of the 15th general election in 2009; I was successfully able to confront three Congress-ruled State governments and one Congress ally too. One of them even convened a special press conference to declare that his government would move the Supreme Court against the EC’s “arbitrariness”, but I personally had no doubt about its outcome. As it happened, he chose not to in the end. The point I seek to make, by virtue of my own experience, is that the powers of the EC are so enormous and so all-encompassing that they exceed the powers of the executive in all election-related issues during the course of the election period. Of course, these must be exercised judiciously, fairly and equitably, not least because every decision is analysed in every “adda”, every home, every street corner and every “dhaba” across the country, where the EC’s decisions must be seen to be fair and transparent. During the years precedent to becoming CEC, I was fortunate that Mr. Seshan advised me whenever I called on him. As a result I never felt any need to make reference to government or court, once the process was under way.”
Credibility under a cloud
Policy Editor of India Today, Prasanna Mohanty’s piece has been widely shared including by Daily O and he says categorically that for the first time since TN Seshan, the EC’s credibility is under a cloud.
He writes and we quote, “The Modi biopic may have been stopped — but there's no word on NaMo TV. Meanwhile, 66 former civil servants have written to the President, expressing their distress at misuse, abuse and blatant disregard for the Model Code of Conduct (MCC). It looks imposing. But why isn't its writ being taken more seriously? And why isn't the EC punishing offenders more imposingly? The most blatant instance is the alleged misuse of official machinery — the Income Tax (I-T) and Enforcement Directorate (ED) — in targeting Opposition ranks for raids. Since the MCC came into force on March 10, at least four such parties, the Congress, TDP, DMK and JD(S), were raided before the ECI issued an advisory to these agencies to maintain neutrality, impartiality and non-discrimination.”
He also cites the glaring example of NaMo TV — which in his own words, “appeared mysteriously after the MCC came into force and started beaming back-to-back speeches of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, apparently without licence or official sanction, on all DTH platforms. It beamed such speeches even after the deadline for canvassing ended at 5pm on Tuesday for the first phase of polling. On Wednesday, the BJP admitted that NaMo TV belongs to it, but no action has followed yet.
The ECI issued a seven-page order about ‘political content in electronic media’ on Wednesday, stopping the release of films ‘PM Narendra Modi’, ‘Laxmi's NTR’ and ‘Udyama Simham’ until the election period but maintained silence on NaMo TV.”
The writer cites several instances of communalising electioneering as well. He writes: “The Prime Minister himself said Congress president Rahul Gandhi picked Wayanad in Kerala for contesting because Hindus are in a minority there. BJP president Amit Shah went a step further, likening Wayanad to Pakistan when he said in a rally: “Is it in Pakistan?” The UP chief minister, Yogi Adityanath, joined in too, evoking ‘Ali and Bajrangbali’ on April 9 in rallies in Meerut and Bareilly.
From the Opposition, BSP leader Mayawati too crossed the line when she asked the Muslims not to split their votes. All that the ECI has done is seek reports from the respective chief electoral officers (CEOs). The ECI did censure Yogi for describing the Indian Army as ‘Modiji ki sena’ — but yet another BJP leader, Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi, repeated the same and got away with it.
As for the misuse of the armed forces in campaigning, despite specific orders of the ECI, the Prime Minister himself asked first-time voters in Aurangabad and Latur in Maharashtra on Tuesday to dedicate their vote to the martyrs of Pulwama and the heroes of the Balakot air-strike.
Strangely, the ECI’s own ads in newspapers on Tuesday apparently carried photographs of the armed forces, asking people, “Ready to vote in the Lok Sabha election 2019?”
Why the dithering?
The writer asks why despite the fact that the alleged violations mentioned earlier have been broadcast live and published widely, why does the ECI feign ignorance and needs to confirm from the CEOs in order to act, which seems the case now.
We quote, “A similar approach is evident in the case of NaMo TV too. First, it asked the Information and Broadcasting (I&B) Ministry about the status of NaMo TV and then, the CEO of Delhi about whether its content are pre-certified. Its directive to Doordarshan (DD) to ensure a balance airtime to political parties came only after newspaper reports pointed this out, while it is an age-old practice to fix such airtime for each political party well in advance
The ECI’s role in giving a clean chit to PM Modi’s address to the nation about ‘Mission Shakti’ too has come under criticism. Among others, 66 former civil servants wrote to the President of India, saying that propriety demanded that this announcement should have been left to the scientists when the MCC was operative.”
Maneesh Chibbar wrote in The Print recently that the current Election Commission needs the spine of former CEC T.N. Seshan
We quote him, “To say that in the last five years of the PM Narendra Modi government most independent institutions in India have lost their halo would be stating the obvious. But the one institution that has a lot of explaining to do is the Election Commission. Time and again, the Election Commission has allowed the government to escape without even a cursory rap on the knuckles. It is often said that once is chance, twice is coincidence and the third time is a pattern. For our national poll regulator, the pattern is too obvious.”
He says, gone are the days when foreign newspapers would write articles on chief election commissioners like T.N. Seshan referring to him as “India’s scourge of money, muscle and ministers.”
He writes, “Such was his terror that in October 1993, the P.V. Narasimha Rao government decided to turn the Election Commission into a multi-member body, appointing M.S. Gill and G.V.G Krishnamurthy as election commissioners, and restricting Seshan’s powers. But Seshan was not ready to be tamed. When the government started dragging its feet on issuing photo identity cards to voters, Seshan threatened to use Rule 37 of Representation of Peoples Act to not hold any elections after 1 January 1995. The matter was resolved in court, but photo identity cards soon became a must.
The credit for turning a tooth-less model code of conduct into a virtual rulebook, which had to be strictly followed by the government and opposition alike, also goes to Seshan. Senior police officers and civil servants were transferred even on minor counts of what the Seshan-led Election Commission considered misdemeanours; governors and senior ministers were handed out censures without any second thought, with the public gleefully enjoying the travails of the politicians and officers, who appeared powerless before a rampaging Election Commission.”
His successors tried to uphold his legacy and the writer recalls how under the UPA-II regime, then chief election commissioner S.Y. Quraishi called law minister Salman Khurshid to Nirvachan Sadan for a meeting on electoral reforms, because an ‘independent’ Election Commission going to Shastri Bhawan, which houses the law ministry, could send out the wrong signal.
Now he rues the state of defanged institutions like the CBI, The Central Vigilance Commission (CVC), the Central Information Commission (CIC), the Enforcement Directorate (ED), the Income Tax department and counting.
He writes and we quote, “In fact, one may be excused for forming the impression that the Election Commission has acted more against the opposition and opposition-ruled state governments than against the BJP and its allies. Even in various courts, whenever issues related to transparency and electoral reforms have been raised, the response of the Election Commission was often found to be lacking.
Pushing the envelope or sending out a forceful message to the political class, especially those ruling us, is something that one can’t associate with the Election Commission any longer.”
The man who took no prisoners
In his book ‘TN Seshan and the Election Commission’, Christophe Jaffrelot recalled how the criminalisation of Indian politics was affecting elections as never before in the late 1980s and the early 1990s.
Via passages Scroll excerpted from the book, we learn that the shift came with the appointment of TN Seshan at its helm in December 1990, where he would serve for six years. The Commission had always discharged its duties with care, but its measures became more stringent under its new chief’s impetus.
The author accuses Seshan of favouring certain parties and interests and of unpredictable and capricious behaviour but he also concedes that Seshan turned out to be tough to manipulate.
We quote, “Nevertheless, even the most virulent critics of his megalomaniac and autocratic tendencies recognised Seshan’s unprecedented efficiency in protecting the electoral process. Often, he would stagger voting to deploy additional forces and thus reduce the risks of booth capturing and violence near polling booths, which aimed at dissuading so-called hostile voters (e.g. Dalits who, it was feared, would not vote for their upper-caste candidates) from turning up.
In Uttar Pradesh, the booth capturing count fell from 873 in 1991 to 255 in 1993, and the number of polling day killings from thirty-six to three. As for constituencies in which polling had to be suspended or deferred, the tally was a mere three as compared to the previous seventeen.”
He recalls how the 1991 elections were held in a particularly tense background – Hindu-Muslim clashes on the one hand, and caste conflicts on the other dominated the campaign. Moreover, many state assembly elections had been scheduled at the same time as those of the Lok Sabha, which was not the case in 1993. However, there was still a “Seshan effect”, as the press termed it.
He says, “Seshan’s policy partly explains the higher voter turnout (+10 points in Uttar Pradesh): the security provided around polling stations encouraged a greater number of voters to cast their ballot, especially the Dalits, whom gangs were no longer in a position to intimidate. The “Seshan effect” was again at work during the 1996 general elections. The Election Commission dispatched 1,500 observers (an average of three per constituency) for monitoring the elections. Around 600,000 enforcers of law and order were deployed near polling stations run by approximately 1.5 million state employees. Over 300,000 people were placed in preventive detention (125,000 in Uttar Pradesh11 and 59,000 in Madhya Pradesh, where 87,000 firearms were also seized). These arrangements helped contain incidents near polling booths.”
Enforcing the model code of conduct
The book further describes how Seshan waged a war against the tendency of politicians to flout the model code of conduct, which they were supposed to abide by. Polling was suspended in a Madhya Pradesh constituency as a serving governor campaigned for his son, ultimately leading to his resignation. In Uttar Pradesh, a minister was forced to quit the dais at a rally as the campaign period had just ended.
Above all, says the writer, Seshan harried politicians by constraining them to limit their election expenditure. This policy was executed vigorously from April 1996, when the Supreme Court accordingly mandated the Election Commission, which then ordered political parties to submit accounts of their expenditure after the elections.
We quote, “The Election Commission ultimately drew up a very strict model code of conduct. Parties could no longer take voters to polling stations; they were required to obtain the authorities’ permission before setting up camps where they traditionally helped voters find the candidates of their choice on facsimiles of the ballot paper, which, admittedly, is sometimes festooned with a hundred-odd names! To economise, the parties no longer printed copies of voters’ lists on which citizens could find their name before entering the polling station. The 1996 elections, unlike the preceding ones, were no longer marked by innumerable rallies, a plethora of posters, and the use of blaring mobile loudspeakers or video vans that one was accustomed to; the parties went back to door-to-door campaigning. While this newly introduced discipline cut back on the festive aspect of the elections, it also reduced the funding needs of parties, which was expected to impact the degree of corruption.”
TN Seshan’s popularity, says the writer, especially in urban areas, stemmed from his efforts to bring an increasingly decried political class to heel.
He says, “The trajectory of the Election Commission under TN Seshan shows that the effectiveness of institutions is highly dependent upon the personalities at their helm. The same institution may have very different attitudes if its chief is strong or weak, disinterested or preparing for his next (post-retirement?) office. Certainly, some institutions will be better equipped than others to resist pressure, but the character of its leader always plays a major role.”And he leaves us with these thoughts to mull over, “Interestingly, when these personalities leave the scene, their legacy remains for some time, creating a form of path dependency, but equally strong men or women are needed for perpetuating a sense of the professional duty that is likely to fulfil the office’s mission. There’s no bureaucracy, there are only men and women.”