Seshan takes aim
T. N Seshan. His very name takes one's mind to everything that's about polling. LEELA MENON meets the ex-Election Commissioner during a stopover at the Amrita Institute of Medical Sciences
HE HAS lost none of his aplomb, or his sang-froid. T. N. Seshan, the man who reinvented the post of the Chief Election Commissioner, investing it with identity, visibility and power, who cleaned up and transformed the electoral scene of India during his high-profile tenure, and who sent shivers down many a political spine, including that of former Prime Minister P. V. Narasimha Rao, is however, a much mellowed man. Committed not only to democracy but also unflinching in his faith that Indian democracy will survive and thrive.
How does he rate the job of the present Chief Election Commissioner?
"He's doing a great job, with great effect. It was much worse when I took over seven years ago, the scene deliberately made dubious by politicians. Indian democracy is comparable to international standards. We have 1,000 million people and 600 million voters and that we are conducting elections under an absolutely democratic system is a wonder. India is not a literate state. Laws are faulty and democracy is fragile. It is less than 50 years since India got democracy and it is still in an infant stage, it can't do a high jump. We have to be patient."
Mr. Seshan is confident that over time everything will definitely change. "Individuals should be aware of their responsibility to society. No one is now conscious of their duty to society. The ordinary person does not stop violence in society and politicians are part of it., even when they are in power," he points out.
You used to say that the three Cs rule society, communalisation, criminalisation and corruption. How do you assess the increase of communalism in India today?
"Communalisation is just the froth on the water. The heart of India is in good shape. It is just bubbles in a mug of beer. Law of nature tends to chaos. Neatness needs effort. Chaos is easy. I know about Muthanga and Marad, which were bad. Bad is easy. And people are willing to be tools in the hands of politicians. It is easy to become fundamentalist, in protest or in self-righteousness. But what you do is wrong because the weapon of the fundamentalist is violence and terror. But I am sure we will graduate out of it."
Mr. Seshan pauses for a while and then proceeds. "Just see Punjab now. Punjab was bleeding for 15 years. Pakistan encouraged violence in Punjab for 15 years and Punjab burnt. See how calm Punjab is now, with no trace of terrorism. Our inherent strength will always triumph."
How did you transform the post of the Chief Election Commissioner so dramatically, empowering it so forcibly?
"We have an excellent system in place but no one bothers to use it. When I took over the Election Commission it was a dirty place, dusty, equipped with a telephone that did not function and chairs with three legs. I got it cleaned up. Actually what I did was just to enforce one provision in the Election rules which said that an Election
Commissioner has the power to postpone elections, which was never ever used. An Election Commissioner cannot cancel an election but he can postpone an election. That was how I blew the whistle on Lalloo Prasad's election. It created quite a furore. The EC had been in existence for 40 years. It is a part of the Government of India and yet is not a subordinate of the Government of India. Law and order and election law are different. The EC's duty is to hold fair and free elections," he stresses.
Seshan was very appreciative of the election in Kashmir under J.M. Lyngdoh. "I have overseen two elections in Kashmir, once as Chief Secretary of the Government of India. At that time just three per cent of voters came to vote. A coffin was displayed in front of booths, warning people off. In the 1996 elections 15 to 20 per cent of people came to vote. But in 2002, 30 per cent came to vote. The international situation gets reflected in Kashmir, but the electoral performance under Mr. Lyngdoh was a damn good show. Full credit for it should go to him and the government... " Seshan pauses eloquently.
According to him Gujarat presents a confused scenario. "The election went okay. But people are shocked. If the Gujaratis want the BJP to come to power, what can anyone do? The election was conducted well, with no serious damage. If people did not like the BJP triumph there they have to lump it. The Indian electorate is funny. They know whom to vote and they have learnt to vote without fear."
Mr. Seshan is a much-mellowed man, at peace with himself. "I'm 70 years old and in good health. I work 18 hours a day," he said.
What are you concentrating on now?
"I'm involved in the field of education. I'm on the director board of 23 educational institutions, like Symbiosis in Bangalore, and educational societies, like the Manipal, Poona, Chennai etc. It is not for the money or the power. I have no need for money. I feel that my time and talent should be beneficially used."
How do you rate the quality of education in Kerala?
"The quality of education is poor all over India. Education has no fundamentals now. When students from here go to the U.S. they perform well above 40 per cent. Education has spread so widely that seats go a begging now. In Tamil Nadu alone 21, 000 engineering and computer engineering seats are vacant, Millions in India have no schools. In Bihar there are 70 m kids with zero schooling. We talk of higher education but there is no money with the Government. Ninety per cent of government finance goes for Government staff salary and just 10 per cent remains for the rest. Hence our roads and other infrastructure is in bad shape. It takes 45 minutes to cover 10 km in India."
Yet Mr. Seshan is ever the optimist. "There is no need for pessimism or fatalism. What we need is a sense of reality." He then goes on to add. "What Universities should stress on is R & D, or projects like leadership."
Mr. Seshan also teaches decision making to students, taking classes twice a week. "It keeps me busy. I have already written three autobiographical books and do a lot of reading and time on the Internet."
The former Election Commissioner has no desire to come back to politics. "I want to remain apolitical. People are afraid of me, that I might upset their equations," he shrugs.
As he got up to leave for the airport, Mr. Seshan had a parting shot. "There is nothing to worry about the electoral or political scenario in India. The voter awareness in India is just five per cent now. If it grows to 20 per cent Indian democracy will be the best in the world. Voter awareness is the most crucial issues today." He should know.
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