T.N. Seshan, former chief election commissioner of India, while performing his job lent a lot of credence to the institution and completely transformed the way the Election Commission (EC) was being perceived by other stakeholders and institutions of the system. If you see vis-à-vis the government machinery, which is involved in the conduct of elections, the seriousness with which other government offices started taking the EC changed completely during his tenure.
His style was uncompromising and necessary for the time. He became chief election commissioner when coalition politics was at its peak. It was very important to have a neutral referee in whom everybody had faith.
The appointment of observers, or the way they conducted themselves, underwent a lot of change. When he was the chief election commissioner, observers did their duty with great care and diligence. He gave them the feeling that when you are on the field, you are the eyes and the ears of the commission. The seriousness with which observers performed their duty (during his tenure) had not been there hitherto. This gave the impression to everyone in the field that they were being directly watched by the commission. This was one of his big contributions. The ability of the EC to galvanize the whole machinery, to make it perform according to the planning and instructions of the commission underwent a change. To that extent, EC became more effective.
A couple of years after he demitted office, I had an opportunity to work as an observer in the 1998-99 elections. I did not have the opportunity to work directly under him, but the spirit and feeling he left behind continued, which could be seen in the observers’ performance, and the deference with which observers were treated.
When the electoral machinery instils faith in the people that their participation in the electoral process matters, it helps in the process of strengthening democracy. People should understand the power of their votes. This is all part of the electoral process. One thing that happened during Seshan’s time was that the EC tried to convey to the people the power of their votes. It is not just that the EC is a conductor or manager of election, but also an institution, which plays a part in strengthening the democratic process.
Every idea has its own time and context. It is not that whatever was evolved during his period has remained static. Society, context and, to an extent, the enforcement of those ideas, has also become different. During his time, there wasn’t an app like C-Vigil, which was introduced recently, and has become a key mechanism for the election machinery. The model code of conduct, which was evolved as a consultative process despite continuing challenges, by and large is still perceived by stakeholders and implemented by the machinery the same way.
There was constant criticism by some people that he was very overbearing. But he was at a stage when some kind of transformation was taking place, and people were not used to the EC being so significant and effective, so they found him to be overbearing. In reality, he was making this constitutional authority assert itself so that it could discharge its role envisaged by the constitution makers and earn the confidence of the people. At the end, people are the biggest stakeholders in democracy. The other important stakeholders are political parties. And, both need to have faith and confidence in the EC. To a great extent, he was able to do it. Only people who were on the wrong side of law, or people who found the way he was acting unprecedented, found him overbearing.
Essentially, he was firm in his approach, fierce in enforcing his authority and fair in his dealings.
As told to Pretika Khanna from New Delhi.
Ashok Lavasa is an election commissioner and an ex-administrator.