A man of many parts, best known for electoral reforms

CHENNAI: India’s former world famous Chief Election Commissioner (CEC) Tirunelli Narayanaiyer Seshan, popularly known as  T N Seshan, who passed away in Chennai on Sunday at the age of 86, was both fascinating and paradoxical public figure. Donning many 'avatars' as an IAS officer to his crowning glory as the CEC 1990-96, he showed what the 'steel frame' of Indian bureaucracy can do.

Reviving a tradition of effective and candid public speaking in the 1990s', which he so disarmingly wove into his new constitutional office, Seshan's political aura was on the ascendant when the polity was struggling with coalitions; even most charismatic political leaders of those days like Rajiv Gandhi having to take an image-blow. A moral super-ego, he kept political parties and leaders on the tenterhook, yet at the same time the man did not fail to part of that system-critic.

That is what made Seshan unique. Even as he unmasked, he claimed no halo for himself. Born and brought up in a traditional Brahmin family in Palakkad, Seshan had the sophistication and good humour to sociologically critique himself: In one of his public meetings in Chennai during those years - virtually every institution liked to call him including his Alma Mater Madras Christian College where he graduated in Physics and taught for a couple of years until he joined the IAS in 1955 as a Tamil Nadu cadre-, he quipped to roaring laughter: "Palghat Brahmins are known for three 'Cs': Cooks, Crooks and Civil Service'".

Seshan once confided that one of his early lessons in popular Marxism was learnt from communist party graffiti on the walls in his home village, scaring the wits out of the poor Brahmin households in the ‘Agraharam’. He rhymed these lines like a Tiruvalluvar couplet: Vasadhi Padaithavan Tharamattan, Vaiyuru Padaithavan Vidamattan (the well-off won't part with what he has, but the man in hunger will not let him go). It left the audience in splits, and made them thoughtful too.  

At times his speech was marked by oracular utterances. Presiding over the College Graduation Day at MCC in early 1991-, it was a game-changing year in Indian politics after Seshan virtually threatening wherever he went: 'No card, no election'. It was with zest and commitment that he pushed for the Electors Photo Identity cards (EPIC), even if the project took several years, his fundamental 'mantra' to root out bogus voting from India's otherwise resilient democracy.

People were perplexed at that MCC function speech, just few months before the Lok Sabha elections that year, when he mused: "One does not know what lies in the womb of time". In retrospect, it was like a Greek Oracle speaking as Rajiv Gandhi, former Prime Minister was assassinated on Tamil Nadu soil on his way to an election rally in Sriperumbudur in May 1991.

His untiring efforts to clean up the electoral system, was undoubtedly Seshan's greatest contribution to Indian democracy. Unafraid of the political class, even much earlier as Agriculture Secretary in Tamil Nadu, his run-in with MGR, then Chief Minister was well known. It was after he moved to New Delhi, Seshan served in a range of key positions like Secretary to the Department of Atomic Energy, Secretary to the Department of Space, Ministry of Environment and Forests, Member, Planning Commission, and then went on to become Cabinet Secretary in 1989.

Empowering the Indian voter, Seshan's tenure as CEC for six long years - has been ably described in the citation of the Ramon Magsaysay Award he was conferred with in 1996 for his multifarious contributions to the Indian Civil Service. The citation read; "When India's politicians proved reluctant to legislate reforms, he launched a crusade of his own. Interpreting the constitutional mandate of the Election Commission as broadly as possible and stretching its legal powers to their maximum possible limits, Seshan set about cleansing the Augean stables of Indian democracy - one election after another."  He fixed time limits for campaigns, undermined ostentatious spending by political parties by enforcing spending limits and axed pre-poll sops among others. In asserting the "authority and independence of the EC", Seshan even locked horns with the Supreme Court.

While there was a very traditional, religious side to him, it was Seshan's controversial remarks in his memoir (penned by K Govindan Kutty, titled 'Seshan an Intimate Story') about late DMK Chief Minister C N Annadurai that brought him into a virtual street battle with the Dravidian majors. With AIADMK supremo J Jayalalithaa at the helm in Tamil Nadu then, Seshan was virtually blockaded at the Chennai airport for almost a day by angry AIADMK cadres, later followed up by some goons driving up an auto right up to the Taj where he was then put up at night. The stir intensified until Seshan said he would withdraw those remarks.

Seshan sought to translate his CEC substantiality into real world of politics when he contested against K R Narayanan in the 1997 Presidential elections and later took on BJP leader L K Advani in the 1999 Lok Sabha polls from Gandhinagar in Gujarat. He lost both. Had Seshan continued his fight against the political class, it is hard to say how he would have fared against a Narendra Modi!

But Seshan mellowed in later years, went on to take over more socially pro-active roles; with his flair for public administration - after a Harvard fellowship that earned him a Master's Degree in that discipline in 1968-, he conceived and headed an ambitious institution in Pune to train the Nextgen political leaders. At the end of the day, Seshan's transparency and passion for justice had won him thousands of fans, even if his obduracy was termed as 'boorishness'. RIP.

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