As the criminalisation of Indian politics was affecting elections as never before in the late 1980s and the early 1990s, the Supreme Court initiated a new form of “judicial activism”. But the Election Commission contributed in its way to boosting the rule of law. The shift came with the appointment of TN Seshan at its helm in December 1990, where he would serve for six years. The Commission had always discharged its duties with care, but its measures became more stringent under its new chief’s impetus.

Tirunellai Narayana Iyer Seshan, an IAS officer since 1955, saw his career soar in 1988 when Rajiv Gandhi had him appointed as secretary heading the defence ministry. As defence secretary, he so ably defended the interests of the Congress (I) during the Bofors affair – a scandal that placed the ministry in the line of fire – that he was promoted to cabinet secretary of the government in March 1989. Seven months later, the new prime minister, VP Singh, demoted him to a member of the Planning Commission.

It was Singh’s successor, Chandra Shekhar, who, in December 1990, appointed Seshan as the head of the Election Commission. Seshan then displayed a certain amount of bias: during the 1991 elections, the Election Commission zealously monitored the bastions of the Janata Dal (VP Singh’s party), where elections were deferred or cancelled on sometimes flimsy grounds.

Generally, Seshan behaved unpredictably, even capriciously. He thus cancelled the Punjab assembly elections a few hours before polling was scheduled, spurring the governor’s resignation. In 1992, the Left parties called for impeachment proceedings to be initiated against him. This move did not succeed apparently due to an understanding between Seshan and Narasimha Rao, who thought he could use the Election Commission.

But Seshan turned out to be tough to manipulate. Finally, the prime minister had the president expand the Commission with two additional members in 1993. Seshan challenged the appointment in the Supreme Court, but its verdict in 1995 was unequivocal: not only was the appointment of these two men deemed to be valid, but the judges also conferred parity on them, ruling that the Commission’s decisions had to be made with an absolute majority.

The Supreme Court justified its decision by underscoring that “[Seshan’s] public utterances at times were so abrasive that this court had to caution him to exercise restraint on more occasions than one” and that his numerous interviews to the media “gave the impression that he was keen to project his own image”.

The ‘Seshan Effect’

Nevertheless, even the most virulent critics of his megalomaniac and autocratic tendencies recognised Seshan’s unprecedented efficiency in protecting the electoral process. Often, he would stagger voting to deploy additional forces and thus reduce the risks of booth capturing and violence near polling booths, which aimed at dissuading so-called hostile voters (e.g. Dalits who, it was feared, would not vote for their upper-caste candidates) from turning up.

In Uttar Pradesh, the booth capturing count fell from 873 in 1991 to 255 in 1993, and the number of polling day killings from thirty-six to three. As for constituencies in which polling had to be suspended or deferred, the tally was a mere three as compared to the previous seventeen.

It is true that the 1991 elections were held in a particularly tense background – Hindu-Muslim clashes on the one hand, and caste conflicts on the other dominated the campaign. Moreover, many state assembly elections had been scheduled at the same time as those of the Lok Sabha, which was not the case in 1993. However, there was still a “Seshan effect”, as the press termed it.

Seshan’s policy partly explains the higher voter turnout (+10 points in Uttar Pradesh): the security provided around polling stations encouraged a greater number of voters to cast their ballot, especially the Dalits, whom gangs were no longer in a position to intimidate.

The “Seshan effect” was again at work during the 1996 general elections. The Election Commission dispatched 1,500 observers (an average of three per constituency) for monitoring the elections. Around 600,000 enforcers of law and order were deployed near polling stations run by approximately 1.5 million state employees. Over 300,000 people were placed in preventive detention (125,000 in Uttar Pradesh11 and 59,000 in Madhya Pradesh, where 87,000 firearms were also seized).

These arrangements helped contain incidents near polling booths: voting was cancelled and reorganised in 1056 booths against 2614 in 1991. A little under half of these (471) were in Bihar, 231 in Andhra Pradesh, ninety-six in Assam, thirty-one in Rajasthan, forty-three in Uttar Pradesh, twenty-two in Orissa...Poll-related violence, too, was spatially concentrated, as out of fifty-one deaths, forty-one took place in Bihar. The number of violent incidents at the polls declined from 3363 in 1991 to 2450 in 1998 and the number of deaths from 272 in 1991 to 213 in 1996, 60 in 1998 and five in 1999, including twenty-nine people who were killed in landmine blasts engineered by Naxalites in Bihar.

Enforcing Model Code of Conduct

Seshan also waged war against the tendency of politicians to flout the model code of conduct, which they were supposed to abide by. Polling was suspended in a Madhya Pradesh constituency as a serving governor campaigned for his son, ultimately leading to his resignation. In Uttar Pradesh, a minister was forced to quit the dais at a rally as the campaign period had just ended.

Above all, Seshan harried politicians by constraining them to limit their election expenditure. This policy was executed vigorously from April 1996, when the Supreme Court accordingly mandated the Election Commission, which then ordered political parties to submit accounts of their expenditure after the elections.

The Election Commission ultimately drew up a very strict model code of conduct. Parties could no longer take voters to polling stations; they were required to obtain the authorities’ permission before setting up camps where they traditionally helped voters find the candidates of their choice on facsimiles of the ballot paper, which, admittedly, is sometimes festooned with a hundred-odd names!

To economise, the parties no longer printed copies of voters’ lists on which citizens could find their name before entering the polling station. The 1996 elections, unlike the preceding ones, were no longer marked by innumerable rallies, a plethora of posters, and the use of blaring mobile loudspeakers or video vans that one was accustomed to; the parties went back to door-to-door campaigning. While this newly introduced discipline cut back on the festive aspect of the elections, it also reduced the funding needs of parties, which was expected to impact the degree of corruption.

TN Seshan’s popularity, especially in urban areas, stemmed from his efforts to bring an increasingly decried political class to heel. In 1994, a survey of 2240 people (1620 dwellers of the six largest Indian cities and 620 villagers) revealed that Seshan’s name was familiar among two-thirds of the citizens interviewed (30 per cent of the rural population), who felt that he was motivated to root out corruption rather than put himself in the limelight. Nonetheless, a relative majority considered that he possessed too much power, a sign that a part of the public was aware of the risk that one man’s growing power could pose for democracy.

The trajectory of the Election Commission under TN Seshan shows that the effectiveness of institutions is highly dependent upon the personalities at their helm. The same institution may have very different attitudes if its chief is strong or weak, disinterested or preparing for his next (post-retirement?) office. Certainly, some institutions will be better equipped than others to resist pressure, but the character of its leader always plays a major role.

The Election Commission is a case in point because it is exposed to political pressure. But other institutions are in a similar situation, like the Reserve Bank of India or even the Supreme Court, as evident from the eras, respectively, of Raghuram Rajan and Justice Aziz Mushabber Ahmadi, who initiated a phase of “judicial activism”.

Interestingly, when these personalities leave the scene, their legacy remains for some time, creating a form of path dependency, but equally strong men or women are needed for perpetuating a sense of the professional duty that is likely to fulfil the office’s mission. There’s no bureaucracy, there are only men and women.

Excerpted with permission from ‘TN Seshan and the Election Commission’, Christophe Jaffrelot, in The Great March of Democracy: Seven Decades of India’s Elections, edited by SY Quraishi.