While the Election Commission (EC) has been under the scanner, especially since the Lok Sabha elections in May, over its perceived failure to check violations of the Model Code of Conduct and ensure a level playing field for the ruling and opposition parties, history tells us that it has adequate powers to curb the money power, muscle power and other irregularities as demonstrated by its tenth Chief Election Commissioner TN Seshan.
Seshan, who passed away at his residence in Chennai on Sunday aged 86, proved to be the greatest ringmaster of the great Indian electoral circus in a country where nearly 90 crore voters will exercise their franchise this year.
He made the EC powerful within the existing laws and pleading for electoral reforms, some of his successors like SY Quereshi and Linghdo also demonstrated their determination to act.
Appointed by Prime Minister Chandrashekhar, Seshan served as a dreaded CEC from 1990 to 1996. He was cited as a shining example of what a CEC should be. Even the Supreme Court once told the Commission to aspire for the kind of credibility it enjoyed during Seshan’s days.
Why do people remember a CEC who was being described as a maverick? Seshan’s story is indeed fascinating.
An IAS topper of the 1955 batch, he had once told an interviewer. “I had never conducted an election. I went with two principles: zero delay and zero deficiency.”
He followed both throughout his tenure. He wielded the big stick and implemented the election manual in letter and spirit. Due to his strict policies he was even called “Al Seshan.”
Some of his big achievements include implementation of the election process and the Model Code of Conduct, introduction of voter ID cards, enforcing limits on poll expenses, and elimination of several malpractices like distribution of liquor, bribing voters, ban on wall writing, use of loud speakers, use of religion in election speeches etc.
He introduced election observers and also forced the candidates to keep accurate accounts of campaign expenses.
Seshan took many bold measures. For instance, under his strict watch, a serving Governor who campaigned for his son had to resign. The Chief Secretary of UP was taken to task for issuing an advertisement in a newspaper at the cost of public exchequer.
He recommended to Prime Minister PV Narasimha Rao to sack two of his ministers – Sitaram Kesri and Kalpanath Rai – for allegedly influencing the voters, but Rao did not act. In 1992, the Left parties even called for his impeachment.
The evolution of the poll panel has been quite fascinating. While until 1989, it was a single-member commission, Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi made it into a multi-member one on October 16, 1989, as he was not quite happy with the then Chief Election Commissioner and wanted to clip his powers.
This had given the government enough space to put its own nominees but they had a very short tenure only till January 1, 1990.
Prime Minister PV Narasimha Rao again made it into a three-member commission on October 1, 1993 and since then the multi-member panel has been in operation.
The question that arises then is: has the EC performed well in the past seven decades?
While the successes have not been consistent or uniform, the EC has conducted 16 general elections in a free and fair manner. However, it is clear that there is need for more electoral reforms and more transparency.
During the Lok Sabha elections held in May this year, political parties across the country were seen brazenly violating the poll code, whether it was using religion to seek votes, or Rajasthan Governor Kalyan Singh’s campaign to support Prime Minister Narendra Modi or UP Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath’s describing the army as ‘Modi-ji ke sena.’ These indicated the ineffectiveness of the EC to contain the political class.
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