T.N. Seshan, as Chief Election Commissioner during 1990-96, had initiated the process of cleaning up the electoral system. The introduction of electors’ photo identity cards was a measure towards this direction. He also saw to it that the model code of conduct, till then considered a document of academic interest, was taken seriously by the parties and candidates. Despite facing a volley of criticism that he had exceeded his brief, Mr. Seshan demonstrated to the outside world that his post was no pushover.
Born on December 15, 1932 in Palakkad, Kerala, Mr. Seshan belonged to the 1955 batch of Tamil Nadu cadre officers of the IAS. An alumnus of the Madras Christian College, he, as an IAS officer, did a year-long course in management at the Harvard University in the 1960s.
Even though the Tamil Nadu part of his career was largely regarded as uneventful, he, as Madurai District Collector during 1965-67, came into the attention of the public when he dealt sternly with participants of the anti-Hindi agitation. According to K. Govindan Kutty’s biography Seshan: An Intimate Story (1994), then Chief Minister M. Bakthavatsalam was “flooded with complaints of suppression of civil rights” in the district. Yet, Mr. Seshan was left intact.
In the Tamil Nadu government, he held positions such as Industries Secretary and Agriculture Secretary during M.G. Ramachandran’s first innings (1977-80) as Chief Minister. His differences with his political masters forced him to opt for a Central posting.
His batchmate-friend and former Vigilance Commissioner in Tamil Nadu P.N. Vedanarayanan said he was not surprised by what Mr. Seshan did as the Chief Election Commissioner (CEC). “His qualities as an administrator were clearly evident when he was part of the State government,” he recalled.
At the Centre, Mr. Seshan held several positions, including Environment and Forests Secretary, Secretary (Security), Defence Secretary, and later, Cabinet Secretary. When Rajiv Gandhi lost power in 1989, he was eased out of the post of Cabinet Secretary and accommodated in the Planning Commission as Member.
When Chandra Shekhar became Prime Minister with the support of the Congress, Mr. Seshan was made the CEC in December 1990. Soon, he had shown that he meant business.
He was known as a no nonsensical CEC and one who enforced, in his own way, discipline on political parties and contestants. He earned the wrath of several politicians including former Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalalithaa, who once described him as an “embodiment of arrogance.”
He did not compromise on his position that every election had to be held in accordance with the model code of conduct and electoral laws. During the Karnataka Assembly elections in December 1994, he famously pulled up Union Ministers Sitaram Kesri and Kalpnath Rai for “attempting to influence voters.” Then Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao had assured him that such a problem would not recur.
As part of his variant of electoral reforms, the Election Commission of India (ECI) had listed 150 malpractices in the elections. The process that Mr. Seshan had launched got improved by his successors.
It was during Mr. Seshan’s period that the Commission was made a multi-member body in October 1993 with the appointment of M.S. Gill and G.V.G. Krishnamurty. Though he had opposed the government’s move, the Supreme Court upheld the government’s decision to appoint Election Commissioners.
Former CEC T.S. Krishna Murthy, who wrote Miracle of Democracy: India’s Amazing Journey , termed Mr. Seshan’s tenure a “turning point” in the history of the ECI. “If the history of Election Commission is written, it has to be divided into two parts — pre-Seshan era where the Commission functioned as a department of the government and the post-Seshan era when the Commission became more independent,” he pointed out.
Briefly in the mid-1990s, Mr. Seshan became an icon of the middle class as he was seen as a crusader against corruption and electoral malpractices. His work was recognised internationally when he was given the Ramon Magsaysay award for 1996.
In October 1994, days before the launch of Mr. Seshan’s biography, the book had attracted widespread controversy as it had some references to former Chief Minister C.N. Annadurai which, political parties in Tamil Nadu had thought, were offensive. Later, the book was published, excluding the references.
In July 1997, Mr. Seshan unsuccessfully contested the presidential election against K.R. Narayanan. Two years later, in the Gandhinagar parliamentary constituency, the Congress fielded him against then Union Home Minister L.K. Advani but he lost.
Subsequently, he had served as an adviser of the Sathyabama Institute of Science and Technology, a deemed to be university. He was a staunch devotee of the 68th pontiff of the Kanchi Mutt, Chandrasekharendra Saraswathi (1894-1994).