In a condolence message put out a day after former Chief Election Commissioner T N Seshan’s demise, the Election Commission of India said he “redeemed the autonomy and authority that the Constitution has bestowed upon the ECI” and “he started proactively purging the elections of their evils like money, liquor, muscle power, booth capture, etc.” Seshan’s legacy could not have been summed up any better. The former bureaucrat was appointed the CEC in 1990, at a time when booth capturing, casteism, money and muscle power were the norm during elections.
In an essay he wrote for a book that another former CEC S Y Quraishi edited, Seshan described the 90s as the “toughest time”. Not only were governments not interested in strengthening the poll panel, the bureaucracy also tried to run down the ECI, he wrote. But he went about cleaning up the electoral system with unmatched zeal. He introduced the voter identity card, staggered elections wherever necessary, appointed election observers and strictly enforced the model code of conduct. All this began to yield results slowly and today, booth capturing and poll-related deaths are a thing of the past. Writing in the same book, well-known political scientist Chistrophe Jaffrelot has termed this the “Seshan effect”. In 1993, Seshan cancelled the Assembly elections in Satna, Madhya Pradesh, after he found that the then Himachal Pradesh Governor Gulsher Ahmed had campaigned for his son, who was contesting on a Congress ticket. In another instance, a minister in Uttar Pradesh was forced to leave the dais at a rally as the campaign period had ended.
The high standards that Seshan and perhaps J M Lyngdoh set have unfortunately been lowered in recent times. The impartiality of election commissioners has often come under a cloud while allegations of violation of the model code of conduct are now routine. If India has to keep up its reputation as the world’s largest democracy, keeping the poll process above suspicion is essential. For this, the onus is on the incumbent election commissioners.