The responsibility of a Chief Election Commissioner is not only to run the electoral process efficiently but also to identify and implement ways and means by which the electoral process would improve. In fact, one aspect of the responsibility cannot be separated from the other and therefore in everything I did as the CEC, there was always a lookout for opportunities to reform. And, of course, I believed in doing my work efficiently and with favour to none.
As I have indicated earlier, it started with setting the environment within the commission in proper order while improving on the efficiency and discipline. And then came the symbols cases and the related processes. Though these were handled according to law, the situation did improvise as we went along, be it through case laws or through managing the symbols better. The election process itself provided many opportunities, and much of the early improvements were focussed on better implementation of the laws.
I also took special steps, exclusively focussed at reforming the process. The first year, 1991, gave me ample opportunities to study the loopholes in the system in detail. It was not that this insight was not already available with the commission, but a comprehensive view was taken now.
We listed different ways in which the integrity of election was being compromised. This ranged from impersonation while voting, collusion of polling staff with contestants, the use of muscle power, to illegal use of government machinery, and so on. The list had 150 items. Even after conducting many elections, I still had a list of 150 possible defects in Indian elections.
Some of the defects were repairable by what the ECI could do. Others were curable only if Parliament would change the laws. There were some that were treatable only if the political parties and individuals would change their character. In respect to one set of defects, I needed to go to the government. A booklet had been printed and forwarded to the government in February 1992. This 34 page document contained a set of ECI proposals for electoral reforms. In nine chapters, it dealt with various aspects of elections, ranging from the delimitation of constituencies, of preparing electoral rolls, to the actual process of election and declaration of results.
Each chapter discussed various issues pertaining to organisational structure, disciplinary powers, code of conduct, security, and so on. The document even detailed who should do what to affect the proposed reforms and what laws or rules should be changed by Parliament in each case.
The government did precious little about it. Let alone make a reply, the government did not even send an acknowledgement. Even two years later, when I spoke about the suggested reforms and the inaction of the government at countless public gatherings, the government did not take up the matter.
This did not mean that the entire exercise of documenting the suggested reforms had no benefits. It did make a difference in the ECI’s approach to the challenges obstructing free and fair elections. It helped the commission define and visualise its goal, and sharpened its focus. Beginning in late 1992, I had used every legitimate means at my disposal to fine-tune the processes involved in elections in the country, so that loopholes could be plugged, and free and fair polls could be conducted.
It took a good team, a great deal of ingenuity and consistent work. In the latter half of 1993, a total of nine states, including a large part of the Hindi belt, went for elections, so it was generally termed as mini general elections. At the end of these mini general elections, the general report was that it was one of the most peaceful elections, despite the fact that one of the states that went to polls was the “difficult” Uttar Pradesh. The commission received a great deal of praise for the handling of this election.
The actual election work is done by millions of ordinary Indians who diligently work, whether as security personnel, as poll booth staff, counting staff, enumerators, etc. Then there was the good work of my staff in the commission itself. All in all, the team worked well, and finally the newspapers agreed too without any reservations. The Pioneer on November 23, 1993 had an editorial titled “Thank You, Mr Seshan”. An article in The Statesman, dated December 17, 1993, read:
[...] Though the ruling party is recalling the Frankenstein parallel [for appointing Seshan], what is frustrating most political parties is perhaps the fact that the CEC is yet to provide the parliament with a cause justified enough to constitutionally move an impeachment motion against him. Here is an extraordinary man who, for a change, is exercising the authority that a CEC, though empowered to, has perhaps seldom exercised before [...]
India Today, in its article dated December 15, 1993, reflected violence-related statistics in its article, showing a near 80 per cent fall in booth capturing and 90 per cent fall in deaths in comparison to the data for the 1991 elections. It went on to read:
[...] Seshan’s big stick clearly motivated the police forces in all the states going to the polls to wield their own sticks with more than the usual zeal and uncharacteristic good judgement. In Uttar Pradesh alone, some 50,000 history-sheeters were given the choice of filing for anticipatory bail or facing preventive detention.
More spectacularly, in Himachal Pradesh, at least 18 gunmen of errant Punjab ministers were stopped and disarmed while crossing the state border on polling day. In these elections of 1993, even MLA Pappu Yadav was reported to have been stopped from entering Uttar Pradesh by Nagaland policemen posted there; they were enforcing the rule that was in place at that time. The report is consistent with what I personally found on ground.
My wife was on a visit to Mathura with a group of women when a police hawaldar there gifted her an image of Lord Krishna, which I have with myself even today. He said that he was grateful for what I had done because now, they could do what was right and what was their duty, without any fear as they had the commission backing them.
On my part, I had the powers that I had been asking for, and which the courts gave to me at that time. There was no doubt that there was enough character and substance in the polling officials and the police to run an excellent show. I could, therefore, focus on other matters related to reforming the polling process.
Excerpted with permission from Through the Broken Glass: An Autobiography, TN Seshan, Rupa Publications.