The independence of TN Seshan | HT editorial
TN Seshan, India’s former chief election commissioner (CEC), who redefined how the largest democratic exercise in the world was conducted, died on Sunday. His death has sparked an outpouring of obituaries across the political spectrum. It is remarkable that a 1955-batch Indian Administrative Service officer, who retired from the Election Commission (EC) almost 25 years ago, is still remembered with such respect.
The reason Seshan was so widely respected, in life and in death, is simple. He understood and implemented the spirit of the constitutional scheme as far the EC was concerned. The EC was, and is, not an arm of the elected executive. It is a statutory body, which draws its legitimacy directly from the Constitution. This gives it independence and autonomy to perform its task freely and fearlessly. This principle guided Seshan, and enabled him to take on political leaders from the prime minister to chief ministers, governments from the Centre to states, and introduce a partial clean-up of the electoral system. He prevented state administrations from becoming a tool of state governments to unfavourably tilt poll outcomes. He did so by enforcing the model code of conduct, which prevented incumbents getting an unfair advantage. He ramped up law enforcement to prevent booth-capturing. He introduced voter identity cards. And he maintained his credibility by being equally strict with all parties. Seshan made a mistake by flirting with politics after retiring, but that would be a small blip in an otherwise stellar career.
There are two lessons from Seshan’s life. One is for electoral reforms in India. Polls need another round of clean-up, and this time, the effort must be directed at reforming political finance. The second is for independent institutions. Don’t let the executive dictate terms, and follow the Constitution in letter and spirit.