He was the one who brought to light the unflinching powers of the Election Commission to the nation. He was the talking point of media when he was Chief Election Commissioner (CEC) between 1990 and 1996. He, too, relished it. He won the Ramon Magsaysay Award for his meritorious service in 1996.
But in 1990, before assuming office as CEC, he was not considered that big. A 1955-batch Tamil Nadu-cadre IAS officer, Seshan did his public administration course from Harvard University.
Seshan had topped the police examination in 1953 but did not take up the service. He wrote the civil examinations again and he topped the IAS exam in 1955. He is quoted as saying he did not take up the police service as he felt he would have to deal with criminals all the time and eventually would have become hard-hearted.
He started his career as an assistant collector in Coimbatore and served as a director of State Transport Department in Madras Presidency. He rose to became the Union cabinet secretary and grabbed attention during Rajiv Gandhi’s tenure as Prime Minister. VP Singh as Prime Minister appointed Seshan as a member of the Planning Commission.
Seshan was not greatly interested to work as Planning Commission member. Subsequently, he was recommended to the post of Election Commissioner by his Harvard University friend and the then Law Minister in Prime Minister Chandrasekhar’s cabinet, Subramanian Swamy. The next six years became the reformation period in Election Commission.
Aggressive electoral reforms
Seshan successfully conducted free and fair elections with effective implementation of electoral rules. He was strict on poll expenditure and made it mandatory for politicians to submit electoral expenditure accounts. He put a stop to round-the-clock election campaigning and fixed a 10 pm deadline for winding up the campaign.
He also banned politicians from bringing voters to polling booths in vehicles and stopped parties from setting camps near the booths. By effectively implementing all these rules, he became a nightmare for politicians, while he was hailed by the public for his work. Seshan became very popular for his stupendous knowledge of electoral rules and the powers of the Chief Election Commissioner.
He proved how the Election Commission can effectively handle State administration, the police and military according to the needs once the election dates were announced.
He successfully curbed the election excesses with an iron hand during the elections in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar during his tenure. In Bihar, he cleverly conducted the polls in four phases spread over four months with the help of 650 company paramilitary forces.
He cancelled elections in Punjab and Madhya Pradesh when the campaign was at its peak due to violations. In 1993, during Assembly elections in various States, Seshan disqualified 1,488 candidates for three years for failing to submit their expenditure accounts and he also disqualified 14,000 candidates for furnishing false information, thus ringing in electoral reforms.
CEC powers checkmated
With appreciation from all corners, Seshan’s popularity rose to dizzy heights. To hold the Seshan juggernaut and clip his wings, the then Prime Minister PV Narasimha Rao checkmated him by appointing two more Election Commissioners, MS Gill and GVG Krishnamurthy and created a situation that any decision has to be taken with the approval from at least two out of the three commissioners. Seshan who had thus become Chief Election Commissioner, a post created after the Commission was made of three members, filed a case in the Apex Court against this move but he was not able to succeed.
His political interests
The popularity and the attention he got gave him hope for a bright career in politics, post demitting office as CEC. But he was not that kind of a politician who would budge and would be under the control of political bosses. Hence, he could not join any party.
At that time, many newspapers reported that Seshan met the then AIADMK leader J Jayalalithaa and sought party ticket for Lok Sabha polls. Though AIADMK party cadres had attacked Seshan when he was still the CEC, Seshan had an apparent soft corner for Jayalalithaa. He unsuccessfully contested the 1997 Presidential election against eventual winner KR Narayanan. He was backed only by Shiv Sena. No other party supported him. He lost.
In 1999, he contested against LK Adavni from the Gandhi Nagar constituency but lost again.
When Makkal Neethi Maiyam founder Kamal Haasan met Seshan in 2018 to seek his advice, Seshan said, “Had I been in good health I would have joined your party”.
Seshan’s other interests
Seshan liked Carnatic music and loved listening to devotional songs. He was an ardent devotee of Kanchi Sankaracharya and Puttaparthi Sai Baba. When Kanchi Paramacharya attained mukthi, Seshan was seen making arrangements for the final journey. Born and brought up in Palakkad, he was good at cooking Palakkad Brahmin cuisine and he felt proud of it. He lived with his wife Jayalakshmi, who passed away last year, in an old age home for a short period of time. The couple remained issueless and he had to shuttle between his house in Alwarpet and the old age home.
His Punch Dialogues
- I’m not part of government
- I am answerable only to Prime Minister and President
- I have not got powers from anybody. The Indian Constitution has bestowed powers on me
- Be it Prime Minister, Governor or any politician… all are equal before law
- Only I will decide how to conduct an election. Politicians have got away with nonsense for far too long
News Research Department