During the 1990s, the Election Commission of India (ECI) rose in stature, autonomy and mandate and many have credited this rise to the leadership of the late T.N. Seshan, who served as the Chief Election Commissioner (CEC) between 1990 and 1996. And recent research confirms that Seshan’s entrepreneurial leadership was critical in the ECI’s rise while highlighting other important forces.

In a 2018 study, Amit Ahuja and Susan L. Ostermann trace the mechanisms by which the ECI enhanced its mandate to become one of the most trusted public institutions in India. They argue that three factors are required for a public institution to expand its mandate – political opportunity, the demand for a neutral public institution and entrepreneurial leadership.

In the 1990s, the political opportunity for the ECI came from the decline of the single-party dominance of the Congress party. In the 1970s and 1980s, the ECI was circumscribed by executive dominance but this changed in the 1990s with the weakening of the executive and the rise of both regional parties and coalition politics. Both national and state parties, especially smaller parties, demanded an assertive and neutral ECI to minimize uncertainty and ensure fair and free elections.

This allowed the then CEC (Seshan) to assert ECI’s authority by introducing measures such as election observers and the Model Code of conduct. The ECI as an institution was further strengthened by measures such as digitizing voter lists and the requirement for candidates to publish economic assets details and criminal records. Another way the ECI expanded its mandate was to extend election periods and assert greater control over state affairs during elections. The authors conclude that though political uncertainty and the lack of a strong executive might seem detrimental for a federal state, it can offer the bureaucracy an opportunity to strengthen public institutions.

Also read: From Quiescent Bureaucracy to ‘Undocumented Wonder’: Explaining the Indian Election Commission’s Expanding Mandate

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