Former Chief Election Commissioner TN Seshan physically exited from this world on Sunday but he must have died a thousand deaths witnessing the dismantling of the strict regulatory system he had enforced in the conduct of India’s elections.
In 1991 when Seshan, a career bureaucrat, took over the Constitutionally-created autonomous Election Commission (EC) it worked like any another government department – submissive and kow-towing to every whim and fancy of politicians.
Seshan pulled the EC out of its ennui and transformed it into a body that literally brought the shivers to politicians. As a famous saying goes, those days “politicians only feared God and TN Seshan”.
The model code of conduct was strictly enforced, he ensured no contesting candidate in the government could use official vehicles for electoral purposes and a strict tab was kept on electoral spending. Overnight, the EC which was for all purposes a dead horse was flogged into an animal that turned alive and kicked hard.
However, the EC which had risen like the mythical phoenix from its ashes could not sustain Seshan’s system, after his exit. Politicians, across all parties, who were aghast at the enforcement of rules that had for long lain buried in the dusty vaults of Nirvachan Sadan plotted to dilute the hold of the EC even when he was at the helm. They eventually succeeded, sadly. Instead of a single chief, there were now three chiefs – a literal break up of power.
The degradation was never more evident than in the recently held May 2019 general elections. The run-up to the elections, marked by a slew of questionable behaviour, confirmed the end of Seshan’s era of courage and the return of the EC’s timidity and partisanship in dealing with errant political parties and their leaders.
There were complaints galore against contesting candidates, but mostly in vain. Over 400 complaints were reportedly made to the EC, much of it against the ruling BJP and its allies. Complaints by the Opposition that they were being treated with disdain left the EC unmoved.
Prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi and the ruling BJP president Amit Shah had accusations galore of electoral misdemeanours, but the EC either did not consider the complaints or if they did, cleared them with flying colours.
For example, in Maharashtra, Modi exhorted first-time voters to dedicate their vote to the “martyrs of Pulwama” though this was against the EC guidelines not to bring in the issue during campaigning. The EC exonerated the prime minister of the charge that he was misusing it for electoral gain. Modi repeated this in other constituencies as well, but the EC chose to look the other way.
The EC, after much pressure from the opposition, stalled the release of a biopic of Modi but did nothing to stop a controversial 24/7 “NaMo” TV channel that mysteriously appeared during the run-up to the elections and stayed until polls were completed.
There was a glimmer of resistance when one of the election commissioners Ashok Lavasa recused himself in the matter of deciding poll violation complaints. He was reportedly miffed with the manner in which Modi and Amit Shah had been exonerated of all poll violation complaints.
In fact, the very manner in which the elections were structured over seven phases spread over two months (from April 11 to May 19) was perceived to be at the behest of the ruling BJP as it would give an opportunity for Modi and his entourage to tour all parts of the country and pay attention to tough constituencies.
Questions were asked about the safety of the electoral voting machines which were stored across so-called strong rooms in various parts of the country. There were reports, including video footage, of instances where it seemed that some unidentified people were shifting the ballot boxes under custody in the cover of darkness.
There were also reports that it was being transported without adequate levels of security. Even a former election commissioner SY Quraishi expressed concern at the lapse which could bring into doubt the veracity of the counting process. Again, the EC simply dismissed the complaints.
Seshan who was reclusive, mostly at a senior citizens’ home, during the last stages of his life would have surely squirmed, grimaced and in private must have spewed tons of his reputed one-liners at the seemingly egregious violations of all the electoral rules he had helped resurrect.
His snap, growl and bark with a ‘bite’ had earned him the sobriquet ‘Al’Seshan (after the reputed breed of watchdogs). If the conduct of the May 2019 elections is anything to go by, India sorely needs an avatar of Seshan. Now.