Remembering TN Seshan: Behind that firmness that turned Election Commission into an institution was a softness only few saw

  • Tirunellai Narayana Iyer Seshan, who passed away on Sunday aged 86, was for many a tough bureaucrat whose sense of authority and occasional rage were legendary.

  • His stellar track record as an officer of the Indian Administrative Service was overshadowed by his stint as the CEC.

  • People who knew him to be an authoritarian figure also knew a softer, upright side that is difficult to capture except in anecdotes.

The story goes that when Subramanian Swamy as India's law minister under the short-lived Chandrashekhar government in 1991 played a pivotal role in the appointment of  TN Seshan as the chief election commissioner, Rajiv Gandhi, whose Congress party played a key role in supporting and then toppling the government, asked him: "Do you realise what you have done?" Or something to that effect.

Tirunellai Narayana Iyer Seshan, who passed away on Sunday aged 86, was for many a tough bureaucrat whose sense of authority and occasional rage were legendary. To give this man who could not be easily cowed down even by the known discipline of politically mastered civil services a constitutional position of authority to run the polls in the world's largest democracy was to give unbridled powers.

 Remembering TN Seshan: Behind that firmness that turned Election Commission into an institution was a softness only few saw

Former chief election commissioner TN Seshan. Reuters

Yet, we know by now that Seshan elevated what was wrongly thought to be a routine bureaucratic job into a truly independent constitutional institution. His sense of transparency and articulation left little room for confusion or doubt, though his style and action were somewhat controversial. But people who knew him to be an authoritarian figure also knew a softer, upright side that is difficult to capture except in anecdotes.

When I asked him at a press conference on how he could be considered a fair referee in a situation where he was judging  Swamy's Janata Party and its symbol, and whether there was a conflict of interest in it, he simply replied: "I will let you decide on that." He knew where the grey areas were, and knew the many layers of the onion.

Yet, the same Seshan flew into a rage and ordered a reporter out of press conference when asked a personal question in bad taste. Never the man to flinch, and yet never one to pretend what was not in his realm of control.

His stellar track record as an officer of the Indian Administrative Service (IAS) was overshadowed by his stint as the CEC.  But I would also call him India's first "Greenocrat" for emphasising the importance of environmental issues, long before Delhi or Bangalore began choking in difficult air or Chennai faced a flood or water crisis. I  have heard him speak at a seminar organised by the Centre for Science and Environment on water harvesting, one of the ideas he helped popularise long before it became a common term across India. Before he was cabinet secretary, he had been India's environment secretary. Way back in the 1980s, he was speaking for reducing emissions from two-stroke engines. He continued to wear a green hat while being India's election chief.

My first meeting with him was at the Planning Commission, to which he had just been sidelined as a member with minister rank by the new government of prime minister VP  Singh whose Janata Dal-led coalition ousted Rajiv Gandhi from office. His large desk was devoid of the clutter of files characterising a typical bureaucrat. I remember him telling me he did not like to keep things lying. He acted quickly and decisively and spoke articulately with rare mental clarity.

I was in Etawah to see polling a day or two before Rajiv Gandhi's tragic assassination on 21 May, 1991 when we reporters witnessed first-hand acts of firing, rigging and booth capturing by hordes of supporters of Mulayam Singh Yadav of the Samajwadi Party. Seshan lost no time in cancelling (countermanding) elections in the entire constituency and ordering a re-poll. Yet, as the CEC,  he knew that he could never be puritanical in enforcing a disciplined ballot. He used the term "acceptable levels of violence" as a pragmatic indication of when he would crack his whip and where he would not. He remarked once that he "ate politicians for breakfast".  His perceived proximity to the Congress (which fielded him against LK Advani in Gandhinagar in 1999) cost him a bit of his famous halo, but there was little doubt that he was an incorruptible patriot. It must also be remembered he unsuccessfully ran in the presidential elections against Congress nominee KR Narayanan in 1997 as an Independent candidate.

My family received two phone calls from him. Once was to me as a journalist when he invited me to the launch of his Deshabhakt Trust. All I remember now is the pleasantness of the mood at his home and the fine Palakkad-inspired vegetarian cuisine at the lunch and the fact that this seemed hardly like the man who ate politicos for breakfast. His penchant and love for cooking and food is part of the folklore surrounding him.

The other call was to my late father, who never knew him. Seshan had met my sister at Princeton University in the US, where she was taking a mid-career course in public policy as a development professional. Apparently delighted to see an Indian woman in a saree at such a gathering, and given that development issues and administration were his pet areas, he took the phone number, came back to India and went out of his way to call and compliment my father, an introvert who never had a fancy for VIPs.

It is this unique mix of softness layered inside a man known to be a no-nonsense advocate of clean elections and clean environment that made him very special.

The writer is a senior journalist and commentator. He tweets as @madversity.

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Updated Date: Nov 12, 2019 14:53:12 IST