In the run up to the 1991 general elections, an institutional earthquake shook political parties. That year, the Election Commission of India (ECI) woke up from its deep slumber and strode the landscape striking down on anyone violating electoral norms, cutting the weed of corruption, irregularities and tightening the screws of electoral laws that were until then observed more in the breach.
Helming this shakeup was the then Chief Election Commissioner TN Seshan (1990-96), a straight-talking bureaucrat who just did not care who he was targeting. He used the autonomy of the constitutional body he was heading to reprimand, sequester and prosecute those who flouted electoral laws. His punitive actions accompanied by the bellowing tone of his voice fetched him the nickname ‘Al Seshan’ (for Alsatian dog).
Covering Seshan’s daily briefings in 1991 was an encounter this writer looked forward to. There was either a decision – some countermanding or the other, a repartee to a smart-alecky question or a show of no-nonsense and impatience if any reporter attempted to trip him.
Thirty years down the line, the EC seems to have again receded into its pre-Seshan mode with complaints of violation not being satisfactorily treated, save for a few exceptions. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, some of his senior colleagues including Amit Shah and others in the party have complaints lodged against them for alleged electoral violations. Complaints have surged against opposition parties too. But the resolution mostly has neither been quick enough nor perceived to be impartial.
In fact, the Supreme Court had to remind the EC recently that it was indeed powerful when the constitutional body fumbled when asked what its powers were. Some action against a few indulging in hate speech followed, including Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath, former CM Mayawati and Union Minister Maneka Gandhi.
Until 1991, the Election Commission was a body that was expected only to organise and conduct elections. Though the Representation of People’s Act, 1951, was in place, the process of observance laid down by the law remained mostly on paper. Rarely would the EC intervene effectively in the event of a complaint. For instance, prior to Seshan, the spending by political parties during campaigning was completely unregulated. There would be a carnival type feel in the air, with all kinds of transport vehicles used for campaigning, posters, banners and buntings all across a constituency. Never were questions asked as to who was spending.
Seshan arrived and changed the narrative. He fished out the electoral laws that mandated the EC to ask for the source of the funds. And, he proceeded to send notices asking candidates for explanations. If some candidates said they had no control over all these as their supporters were doing it on their own, he plugged that saying spending for a candidate by any third party would go into the account of the candidate.
To ensure that this was implemented strictly, the EC temporarily used the services of bureaucrats and government officials to film the posters, buntings etc. So much so, election campaigns went underground – one reason why in today’s elections the visible signs of campaigning are minimal. During Seshan’s time, constituencies during elections would be as silent as a graveyard as candidates could not openly splurge on campaigning.
Another important enforcement was the Model Code of Conduct, which comes into play once election dates are announced. Before Seshan arrived, this was never implemented strictly. Except for the stoppage of campaign 48 hours before voting, the rest did not matter. Seshan ensured that the MCC was observed in totality. In 1993, he suspended Assembly elections to Ranipet in Tamil Nadu and Kalka in Haryana charging that the then chief ministers of the two states had violated the electoral code of conduct by announcing welfare schemes during the course of their campaigns.
An issue that had for long been hanging fire was whether the Election Commission should be led by one Chief Election Commissioner or if it should be a multi-member body. In October 1989, prior to Seshan, the President issued a notification appointing two ECs to the Commission. But both were subordinate to the CEC. A few months later, in 1990, the President quashed the notification.
So, this was the situation when TN Seshan took over as CEC in 1990. His attempts at strictly enforcing fair elections rubbed political parties the wrong way. Seshan’s conduct resurrected the debate over single EC versus multi-member EC in the government. In 1993, two ECs were appointed to the Election Commission. There was a difference from the earlier appointment of 1989. This time around, the powers of the two ECs were the same as CEC. In other words, he is ‘first among equals.’ In effect, this has proved to be the death knell for the efficient and firm functioning of the EC.
Seshan did not take kindly to this change. The day the two ECs took over there were unsavoury scenes in the Election Commission. Seshan challenged the changes in the Supreme Court, which rejected his challenge and upheld the appointments.
In today’s scheme of things, the three Election Commissioners have equal power and in the event of a disagreement the majority view holds. Gradually, the power of the EC has been whittled away with none after Seshan coming close to him in the exercise of his powers at the head of the institution. Among his successors SY Quraishi and JM Lyngdoh attempted to emulate Seshan and even succeeded to some extent. But that’s about it. To figure out who today’s CEC is, one needs to Google his name, and you come across Sunil Arora – such is the fall from the mighty heights that Seshan had taken the EC to.
In the ongoing seven-phase elections of 2019, questions have been raised by opposition parties and independent observers including the media over some controversial rulings and silences on crucial issues that have a potential bearing on the autonomy and power of the EC. But one thing is fairly obvious. With people witnessing what the EC is capable of under Seshan, historical memory will always militate against any attempt to dilute this constitutional body.