11 November 2019
Bhubaneswar: There was a time when elections in India were rampant with bribery, booth-capturing and malpractices and results were frequently manipulated. During such testing times, citizens looked up to Chief Election Commissioner (CEC) to ensure free and fair elections. There was one such man who always held his ground and his name created fear in the minds of politicians.
He is Tirunellai Narayana Iyer Seshan (TN Seshan), a retired 1955 batch Indian Administrative Service (IAS) officer of Tamil Nadu cadre, who is best remembered for cleaning up elections in India. Born in 1932, he was Cabinet Secretary and Member of Planning Commission of India, before being appointed the Chief Election Commissioner. Soon after taking charge in 1990, he became instrumental in strict implementation election code of conduct. He also played an important role in the issuance of Voter IDs for all eligible voters and went on to limit candidates’ expenditure in his/her campaign. According to reports, 1,488 candidates for 1993 Lok Sabha elections were disqualified because they failed to submit an account of their expenses.
Voting was cancelled and reorganised in 471 booths in Bihar during 1991 elections. Following this, Lalu Prasad Yadav and Seshan were always at loggerheads. However, Seshan always stood strong despite several threats by Yadav. He also filed cases and arrested candidates for not abiding by polling rules. He even suspended officials for aligning with candidates. One of his successors has said that before Seshan, the election commissioners were just happy to just announce election results. Religion and caste-based speeches and bribery or intimidation by serving alcohol to villagers were made a thing of past. In 1994, Seshan even advised then Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao to remove two sitting cabinet ministers for reportedly influencing voters.
Stories of him setting up booths in the remotest corners even for a single voter and walking into a centre during polling hours to conduct checks have been immortalized. While his style of functioning was criticized by his haters who called him a ‘dictator’, Seshan went on to earn the label of election watchdog "Al-Seshan (Alsatian)" across the nation. In a brief period of time, electoral 'battles' were dubbed as- "Seshan versus Nation.”
Always law-abiding Seshan went on to win the Ramon Magsaysay Award for government service in 1996. He also contested the 1997 election for President of India opposite the eventual winner, K.R. Narayanan. He is often known for his crisp one-liner dialogues during media reactions or when he was speaking to his seniors and ministers. One such line was “Tu cheez badi hai bhrasht bhrasht” (“You are very corrupt-corrupt”).
Seshan passed away at his residence in Chennai on Sunday following cardiac arrest, at the prime age of 86. He will always be remembered as the man who brought free and fair elections to India as his legacy continues to determine the democratic essence of India.