He was controversial, pompous and domineering. The media did not like him. Politicians disliked him, and journalists like me were intimidated. He was unpredictable, had an elephantine ego and was volatile. He was feared by all and he feared none. But in my opinion, if one person deserves to get the Bharat Ratna, then it is he. His name is T N Seshan.
I was a cub reporter in 1994 when I was asked by my bureau chief to cover an event where Seshan’s biography was to be released. These were different times, there was no social media, no smartphone, almost no TV channel, except Doordarshan and the one that I worked for, and fewer newspapers too. Delhi was not as chaotic and people seemed to have more patience. So, once the event got over, just as Seshan was getting into his car, I tried to ask a few questions. I asked, “How do you feel about your biography, do you think the writer has done justice to your life?” He roared back at me, full-throated, “I give a damn.” After that I did not have the nerve to ask another question.
On another occasion, he had thrown us out of his official residence when my cameraman and sound recordist moved a few things in his drawing room without his permission. He was so furious that I thought he would beat us. But the next day, when I met him at the doorstep of the Election Commission, he smiled at me and walked past without replying to any of my questions. He gave few interviews, but his actions set the Indian electoral system on its feet. He made the Election Commission the second most powerful institution after the Prime Minister’s Office.
Before him, the EC functioned like a government department without any teeth and no roar. Elections would inevitably lead to massive violence and many deaths, especially in north India. Booth looting and ballot snatching were common occurrences. Musclemen would have a field day and politicians could do anything. But Seshan’s strong-arm tactics put fear in their hearts and politicians were scared of him. He brought back sanity to the electoral system. He snatched back democracy from the clutches of powerful politicians and handed it over to ‘we, the people’. But the scenario is different today. The EC has gone back to its meek, toothless tiger ways, with its credibility completely eroded. Politicians no longer fear it, governments couldn’t care less, the press mocks it and people don’t trust it.
Not that the then Narsimha Rao government did not try to rein in Seshan. Rao turned the one-member commission into a three-member commission. M S Gill and G V G Krishnamurthy were inducted into the commission. Seshan was, of course, the chief commissioner but his wings were clipped. Even then the EC was very powerful and his legacy continued. J M Lyngdoh was the one who stood firm and did not let the commission be intimidated by the then chief minister of Gujarat, Narendra Modi. Assembly elections in Gujarat were held when the situation demanded and became relatively normal. This, when there was a BJP government at the Centre, led by Atal Bihari Vajpayee. Lyngdoh was lampooned and ridiculed by Modi, rally after rally but Lyngdoh did not budge an inch. Could the same thing be said about the present dispensation in Nirvachan Sadan?
Religion and politics
Bengal elections are a classic example. According to the election model cde of conduct, either, directly or indirectly, no party, candidate and politician can seek votes in the name of religion. The Indian republic is a secular state. Unlike Pakistan, there is no state religion in India. Mixing religion and politics is a big no-no. These norms were thrown into the dustbin with the rise of the BJP since the 1990s. But in the past, the EC had been vigilant and sensitive about this matter. Shiv Sena chief Bal Thackeray was banned from voting for six years, for asking for votes in the name of religion.
It seems this is no longer an issue with the present EC. Religious symbols are openly used in rallies by candidates. If the BJP is chanting Jai Shri Ram, then Trinamool is reciting the Durga Chalisa. Mamata Banerjee, the chief minister of West Bengal, has been reciting the Chandi Path at election rallies and Modi was seen visiting the Matua community temple in Thakurbari in Bangladesh. The Prime Minister also gave a speech to woo the Matua community. All the TV channels broadcast it live. And most brazenly, this was happening on the day of polling.
The Matuas are part of the Namasudra community which are 17.4 per cent of the total West Bengal population. It is believed that this community could affect the electoral balance in approximately 70 assembly constituencies. Mamata Banerjee, who herself should be hauled up for reciting the Chandi Path, has surprisingly objected to Modi visiting Matua temple. She said, “When elections are on, he (Modi) has gone to Bangladesh and is making speeches on West Bengal. This is in total violation of the election code of conduct.” Despite the complaint by the Trinamool Congress, there is no possibility that the EC will initiate any action.
During the parliamentary elections in 2019, Modi and Amit Shah made several statements which were allegedly violative of the code of conduct. The EC gave both a clean chit. But the third member of the commission, Ashok Lavasa, did not concur with the majority decision. His dissent note was not included in the report and finally, Lavasa, who was to become the Chief Election Commissioner after the retirement of present CEC Sunil Arora, and his family members (wife, son and sister) were subjected to rigorous income tax department enquiries. Neither did the two commissioners come to his rescue nor did they extend support of any kind to Lavasa. He was left to fend for himself. When pushed to the corner, he had no option but to resign and accept a posting in a foreign country.
What could be a more telling commentary on the conduct of the EC than an audio clip circulating in the social media, in which allegedly a senior BJP leader is heard influencing the EC for the posting of a booth manager who doesn’t belong to the area. Apparently, an executive order in this regard has been passed recently. This was unthinkable during Seshan’s command. During his time, a group led by Arjun Singh and N D Tewari split the Congress party, and approached the EC to be recognised as the real Congress Party. The majority decision of the three-member commission decided in favour of the ruling dispensation but Seshan, whose opinion was in the minority, was in favour of freezing the Congress symbol - the hand.
Seshan was called eccentric, many disagreed with his style of functioning, but no one doubted his integrity as CEC. He was ruthless and abhorred politicians but he served his country well. It is people like Seshan who enrich democracy, strengthen democratic institutions and make the nation proud.
The writer is an author and Editor, satyahindi.com