- 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.
- 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.
- The RMAF board of trustees recognizes “his resolute actions to bring order, fairness, and integrity to elections in India, the world’s largest democracy.”
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.
Excellencies, Mrs. Magsaysay, Trustees, Ladies and Gentlemen.
It is for me a very great honor to receive this award and I most sincerely thank you for the award and this opportunity.
Ever since mankind has known civilization and has striven to achieve a form of governance that is the most benign, democracy has evolved as the mainstay. In the most simplified terms, democracy is government of the people. And when there is a difference of opinion, the will of the majority prevails, but it is never forced down on the minority but is carried out with the consent of the minority. Even when and where beloved king was the head of the state, the will of the people was ascertained and respected. In a democracy, expression of the will of the people is ultimately what elections are about. This is because the vast majority of the people cannot directly deliberate on matters of the state. And they select their representative to represent their views, their aspirations, their desires, and the will of the people through such elected representatives. It is this process which constitutes an election.
Of all the countries in the world, and especially of those which obtained freedom after the Second World War in 1945, India stands out as the most shining example where democracy has come to prevail. In approximately 45 years after the Constitution was adopted, free India has held 11 elections to its national parliament. Each of these elections in 1996, 590 million people exercised their free will to elect 543 representatives. Voting was by adult franchise without distinction of sex, religion, caste or creed. Even after years of development, we still have a tremendous backlog of illiterate people and people who live in poverty. But none of these have daunted the exercise of the democratic will where the most powerful Governments have been set aside to bring in new parties and new ideas. India has steadfastly worked for the freedom of its people and their human rights and it alone among the many countries which attained independence after the Second World War has been able repeatedly to ensure the exercise the will of the people. It bears repetition to say that these are conducted under the most arduous conditions are truly gigantic in size and yet still they have passed off without serious flaw.
Not that attempts at damaging the process have been wanting. But every such attempt has been met and successfully overcome by the will of the people and by instrumentalities of State determined to prevent abuse.
I deemed this award a tribute to the process of democracy throughout the free world, to the wisdom of millions of India?s electorate not always necessarily formally educated, to the millions of Indian voters who have overcome disabilities of economic status, social disability, poverty, and prejudice to walk into the ballot booth and use that little marking stamp to decidedly say who they want to rule over them. The Indian elections were conducted by over five million civilian employees, two million policemen keeping guard and everyone of them has acquitted himself with a tremendous sense of duty that not one whisper of doubt on the freedom of the election process has been uttered. This is a tribute to everyone concerned and a demonstration, to the free world, that reiteration of democracy is possible under the most difficult conditions.
In accepting this award, I do so humbly on behalf of the entire people of India and of the electoral structure, with the millions who worked hard in order to make the process a resounding success recently. This award will only reiterate our resolve to stick to democracy and continue to be a source of inspiration to all people who love freedom.
I want to thank all of the people concerned for having bestowed this award on me. While this award will be treated as a symbol of recognition of the extraordinary work of millions of people, I personally shall treat it as a challenge to ensure that what remains of my energies is utilized in the advancement of the great human values of free thinking and free living.
Ladies and gentlemen, I thank you.
Eccentric, abrasive, publicity hungry, possessor of a remarkable ego, overbearing—these are but some of the descriptions made by supporters and detractors alike of T. N. Seshan. Beyond these negative words is the recognition that Seshan is also a revolutionary of sorts, hardworking, an effective administrator, an able bureaucrat, a man for democracy, a hero of the intellectuals and middle classes, clean and honest. His life has been wracked with controversies ever since he went into public service in 1955. Yet, beyond the controversies were accomplishments that earned for him recognition both from his superiors and from the public at large, especially during his tenure as India’s chief election commissioner from 1990 to 1996.
Why was he considered a hero in some quarters but hated in others? What was so important about the Election Commission and elections in India in general?
India prides itself on its democratic tradition. Though there are some imperfections, the country’s electoral process has run smoothly enough to change leadership peacefully since the birth of the Republic in 1947. Elections have ensured the accountability of the government to its citizens. An important gauge in the vibrancy of India’s democracy is the participation of the electorate in elections. The marked growth of the Indian electorate, from some 173 million voters in 1952 to over 602 million in 1998 (a figure representing 62 percent of the population), shows the popularity of elections from the village to the national level, despite India’s great diversity of languages, religions, and ethnic groups. The ballot has been an important ingredient in the making of democracy in India. Under the Indian Constitution, elections are supervised by election commissioners. During the early decades of Indian democracy, eight commissioners bore this daunting responsibility. The ninth brought significant reforms to the system. This commissioner was T. N. Seshan.
Who is T. N. Seshan? His life and times and, in particular, his career in the Indian Administrative Service (IAS) provide clues to the man’s remarkable contributions to the electoral process of India in the 1990s.
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