Will democracy prevail in modern Asia? Many of the region’s power holders doubt it, insisting that their countries are too young, too poor, too diverse to open the political process to citizens with a free voice and a free vote. Democracy of the free voice and the free vote, they say, sows discord, stymies economic growth, and violates hallowed traditions of consensus. But Indians feel differently. In their nation of 900 million souls, Asia’s most diverse democracy reigns. In India, voters—590 million of them in a recent national election—decide who will govern and who will not.
Yet, says TIRUNELLAI NARAYANAIYER SESHAN, India’s democracy has grave flaws. It is, he says, government of some people, for some people, by some people. Its sacred ritual, the election; has been sullied by vote buying, fraud, thuggery, and partisan appeals to caste and creed. All this was the norm, at least until 1990, when T. N. SESHAN was named India’s Chief Election Commissioner.
SESHAN, born in 1933 and educated at Madras Christian College and, later, Harvard University, rose brightly through India’s elite Indian Administrative Service. He held several senior posts, including cabinet secretary under Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, before assuming responsibility for conducting India’s myriad state and national elections.
SESHAN’s initial analysis of his country’s electoral system revealed 150 specific abuses. When India’s politicians proved reluctant to legislate reforms, he launched a crusade of his own. Interpreting the constitutional mandate of the Election Commission as broadly as possible and stretching its legal powers to their maximum possible limits, SESHAN set about cleansing the Augean stables of Indian democracy—one election after another.
He dispatched Central Police Forces to suppress local goons end prevent theft of ballot boxes. He insisted that all polling stations be accessible and private. He took stern measures to prevent vote buying. He banned ostentatious campaign displays and noisy rallies and required candidates to clean up walls and buildings defaced with their slogans. He enforced spending limits and required contestants to submit full accounts of their expenses for scrutiny by independent government inspectors. He exposed politicians who made illicit use of public resources for electioneering and prohibited election-eve bonanzas for government workers. He banned the sale of liquor and seized unlicensed firearms at election time. He prohibited election propaganda based on religion. He urged that every voter be required to possess a special election identification card. And all the while, he conducted a spirited campaign to educate Indian citizens about their rights and responsibilities as voters.
In asserting the authority and independence of the Election Commission, SESHAN locked horns with India’s Supreme Court and has feuded bitterly with the country’s politicians, leading to more than one attempt to impeach him. His critics call him arrogant and abrasive. But others see him as the iron man of Indian democracy, who has cowed the high and mighty and restored credibility to the electoral system. Because of him, they say, Indian elections are cleaner and safer today and more truly reflect the will of the people. As a consequence, more Indians are voting.
Deeply religious, sixty-three-year-old SESHAN lives modestly with his wife, Jayalakshmi. He engages in few diversions but broods incessantly about the fate of India. Elections, in his view, constitute only one element of modern Indian life that needs “cleaning up.” His thoughts about India’s regeneration are complex but the essential element, he says, must be absolute tolerance.
In electing T. N. SESHAN to receive the 1996 Ramon Magsaysay Award for Government Service, the board of trustees recognizes his resolute actions to bring order, fairness, and integrity to elections in India, the world’s largest democracy.