Book Reviews

Seshan: A Session in Memory

Through the Broken Glass, An Autobiography
by T N Seshan, Rupa

The blurb of this posthumous publication, An Autobiography by T N Seshan, who, as chief election commissioner, made a difference to Indian elections and politics at large, opens with an arresting observation: “2 August: A red-letter day for democracy in India.”

That day Seshan put on hold all elections indefinitely. It was like, to employ a crude metaphor, the life-giver becoming the hangman. The constitutional officer, whose job it was to conduct elections, was himself putting them off, with no hint of what lay ahead for governance in India..

That day my editor, Prabhu Chawla, asked me to meet and make sense of this unusual man and his moods, his moves. Perhaps Seshan himself gave the idea. He had done something mind-boggling, and he wanted to have its enormity registered on India’s mind. But he let out a cold word of caution. He was not having the best of the press. A day earlier, in Chennai, he had driven a reporter out of his media mela. So watch out!

There was, thank heavens or him, nothing untoward to watch out.  That day began an acquaintance leading to a quick book, Seshan: An Intimate Story from Konark Publishers. Tapping his formidable memory and explaining, with his participation, what he was to call later “electoral ahimsa,” it made news across the country, not excluding the courts.

Seshan was none too unaware of the implication of that epic order of August 2, 1993. It left, if only for days, India’s political system eerily vulnerable, subject to one man’s whim. He was mentally testing its vulnerability and, at once, his office’s capacity to strike a crisis. In his autobiographical account, he says, the election commission did “not find itself in a position to carry out its constitutional obligations in the manner envisaged by the makers of the constitution.” 

It is an inexorable logic that what cannot be done is not done. The deadlock is “solely the making of the government of India,” Seshan argued. A weaker man, like his predecessors and successors, would have lived down such a conundrum, buckling under pressure, even avoiding such an ultimate confrontation but not Seshan. He viscerally enjoyed taking on any system that sought to curb him. And he instinctively explored the latent sources of power in the system and its statute. The prophecy or threat of impeachment, not entirely unfamiliar to him, did not daunt him.

Blanket postponement of “all and every elections,” was a Seshanesque response to successive governmental ploys to browbeat the Election Commission and render it virtually into one of its departments and CEC its head. Seshan would brook no such interference from the babudom of North Block and its political overlords. His compulsive resolve was to recover the Commission’s autonomy, He insisted on exercising his right to requisition election officials--and discipline them. He would act tough whenever he found any breach of the model code, no matter who the delinquent was. Often, he had the courts on his side. Lastly, CEC must be given the status of a Supreme Court judge. 

Seshan gave an inkling of his intention and style when he set foot in Nirvachan Sadan. In what seemed a shrill knock on a somnolent system, he struck the initial note by pulling down from its walls varieties of garish calendars with paintings of selected deities from our enormous pantheon. Seshan is no religious rebel, no rationalist, no critic of godmen but he did not want them to meddle with the election process. So out went the paper deities of Nirvachan Sadan.  

His presence unsettled junior colleagues. He was mercurial, rising from quiet concern to eruptions of rage. There was something about him that intimidated people who did not go along with him gleefully. That persona marked him out from a superannuated civil satrap. He was ever sure of his facts. When he left a note to be typed out, he would tell a cowering clerk, “hey, look here, do not change my spelling,” To another aide, he would reserve a warning, “make sure not a shred of paper does not go out of this compound.” Did I suspect it was addressed to me as well, in a fit of ventriloquism, suggesting I better not prowled around his office documents?

I had an occasion to take to him a journalist, a deskman, who was seething with admiration for India’s super poll manager who was making noisy waves across the country. To start with, Seshan was a picture of amiability. As the dialogue developed, he was asked what book had influenced him most. Pat came the reply, “what else, Bhagavad Gita, that great gospel of karma and equanimity, vita raga bhaya krodha…” Then came a question about how he faced the Emergency. A sullen silence passed by. And, then, in a moment or so, the man who was a stitadhee, a study in calm, lapsed into paroxysms of anger. The naive visitor, who meant no offence, was asked to clear out, letting his shadow not touch the wall of the fortified compound.

Such display of outrage was not reserved for that flabbergasted journalist. His blow up through the phone was verily a performance, particularly when the victim on the other end was someone high and mighty. If there was anyone to overhear around, the decibel level would rise and the drama would deepen. Once it was a Minister of State for Home who had called up to assuage Seshan’s feelings which were wounded when some crackpot caused a stir in his office. It was no more feeble a gunshot than what was heard in the portals of a godman in Bengaluru. The spiritual constituency seemed shaken until investigators established that it was merely an ailing vagrant dog being driven away. 

In Seshan’s case, no one had meant any harm, but he told an embarrassed Minister of State that his Z category security may be strengthened as Z plus. Which meant even more idle gun-toting constables following him everywhere, sky or star or a sleepy village on planet earth. The tactful junior minister negotiated peace but the Law Minister who rang up later was not as lucky. Letting him not complete a sentence, an enraged CEC shut him up. 

His mansion on Pandara Road had a tall black gate behind which were stacked sandbags, behind which armed cops took position. He was a security enthusiast. As the Prime Minister’s security secretary, Seshan had, as he said himself, pulled a biscuit out of Rajiv Gandhi’s mouth. He could be the designer as well as the disburser of VVIP protection plans. No unapproved visitor got past the guards. An unwelcome caller would be told “Mr Seshan is not home,” Seshan himself executing a peremptory dismissal. News reporters irritated him with questions like “are you a man or a congressman.” He dealt with them severely. He liked being tough and looking so. Whether such a man should be made CEC was an uneasy query on powerful lips.

He was a reluctant CEC. So would he have us believe. As Cabinet Secretary, he was no darling of V P Singh who became Prime Minister after a fractured election. Unsurprisingly, Seshan was eased out, and reduced to a sinecure.  When a hotch-poch administration led by Chandra Shekhar replaced V P Singh, Seshan’s stars of luck were ever more luminous. In this autobiography, he recaptures the power play of those times with such thoroughness as one may associate with what is called hyperthymia. 

One dull evening, Seshan got a call from his buddy and successor as Cabinet Secretary, Vinod Pande, sharing with him the move to make him CEC. For whatever reason, Seshan said he was “not fit for the job.” It was a rare show of modesty. He was really Law Minister Subrahmanian Swamy’s “find.” When their relations broke down a few years later, Swamy said Seshan had “begged” for the position. 

Debating with himself on his ‘fitness’ or its lack, he got ready for a mini-poll on the issue. Other than astrologers, some of whom he credited with unerring intuition, one of them even making a Cassandric prophecy of Rajiv Gandhi’s death by visphotana (explosion), Seshan consulted three benefactors. Seldom did he need any other counsel than himself but this time round it was different. He sought advice from three people: Paramacharya of Kanchi, President R Venkataraman and Rajiv Gandhi. 

How and what advice was obtained is an interesting post in this discussion. Rajiv Gandhi, who fetched him for a nocturnal discussion, was categorical. He and those who made him CEC would equally repent their decision. When their tet-a-tete ended, cocks had begun cawing in the early hours of the day. Venkataraman asked him to drop all formalities, capping his oration with a terse disapproval, Paramacharya nodded his consent.

Seshan had called on Paramacharya only once before. During his dull days in career leap, he had a coveted United Nations offer. He went down to Kanchi, spending the best part of the day with the Sage of Kanchi. By the way, Kanchi, a hundred kilometres from Chennai, is not one of the acknowledged four monasteries in the Shankara tradition. Not a word was exchanged during that prolonged presence. Seshan knew it was disapproval. 

This time round, Seshan did not fly down to Kanchi. He sent his query through a friend. And, that friend was soon back online with an unequivocal instruction from the Sage: ”It is a respectable job. Ask him to take it.” Lo and behold, there was no need to present the question, it having been known already to the seer, of course, with his spiritual foresight. That clinched the issue, Seshan acting on his advice with reverence. 

Incidentally, Seshan is an astrology buff too but he would not venture predictions. Predictions become valid only with intuition which is not a commodity to be bought in any education shop. He has an astrological story to tell with verve and frivolity. By his horoscope, he was not to have a child. So his father went round looking for a girl whose guiding stars could offset Seshan’s stellar malevolence. Seshan would ask him a self-deprecating question: if he won't have a child and his wife would, whose child would it be?   

Then  Paramacharya died. Seshan who was away in Kerala needed to be in Kerala but there was no flight available. Subramanian Swamy tipped him off. Call Ambani. Which he did. When malicious reports came accusing him of receiving Ambani’s favours, he retorted he had personally paid for it. Be that as it may, Swamy and Seshan were soon at loggerheads. So much so that Swamy was the first critic to comment on our book, Seshan: An Intimate story, listing down no less than 140 errors of fact in it. Chandra Shekhar, who was the Prime Minister who ushered in CEC Seshan, stayed away from its release function.   

Two points about election reforms precipitated by Seshan may be helpfully recalled. First, though India took pride in being the country with the “largest electoral exercise in the world,” it had a long-standing rule on elections which were flouted unabashedly and unerringly. To calculate expenses, CEC sent out camera troops to record wall writings and election meetings. If the expense overshot the old unrealistic ceiling, the candidate concerned would face the music. That had a salutary effect for some time on election expenses by political parties. 

Second, Rajya Sabha was intended to be the council of states and its elected members must be regular residents of their respective states. The fact of the matter was that a Kannadiga could be thrown up from Kolkata or a Punjabi from Palakkad. Every party, barring perhaps CPM, had its members incongruously elected from states where they rarely lived. The government got out of the conundrum by changing the statute, exposing even CEC Seshan’s helplessness, revalidating the theory that the law could be changed if the people are unchangeable!

While commenting on Rajya Sabha elections, Seshan touched upon certain intriguing aspects of the election of the Vice President who is also the Chairman of the Upper House. A familiar figure on New Delhi roads in the nineties was a peripatetic person with no firm address bearing an unlikely honorific of a name, Kaka Joginder Singh Dharti Pakad. He often managed to obtain the required number of nominations from MPs for contesting presidential and vice-presidential elections. As a rule, his contest for the top job ended as a dim farce.  

Once it turned out to be less or more than a farce. The occasion was the election of K R Narayanan as the Vice President which Dharti Pakad, his only inconsequential rival, challenged. There were minor inaccuracies in all of Narayanan’s nomination papers. Minor or major, inaccuracy remained inaccuracy, and that meant his papers could be rejected as out of order, leaving the field exclusively open to the solitary contender, Dharti Pakad. His petition was somehow not carried. Looking back, Seshan said it was a ruling “bad in law but good for the country.” He did not perhaps think worthy of inclusion in his autobiography what he had told me personally.

For a civil servant of his calibre and stature, he had aired some sweeping and facetious observations which caused a stir in political salons. When there was an abortive attempt on Rajiv Gandhi by miscreants hiding in shrubs in Raj Ghat, Seshan suspected a conspiracy by his own buddies. I did not have fresh or direct information. How come such a point blank attack left none wounded, not to speak of more harm? He had a cryptic answer: “They merely wanted to scare him, not hurt!” 

Rajiv Gandhi did not survive the eventual assassination bid by Tamil Tigers. There was again a theory of conspiracy, this time with sources abroad. When a commission of inquiry led by Justice M C Jain went about interrogating everyone who was someone, including me, on the foreign aspect of the conspiracy. I could help the commission with no more information than what I shared with my readers, gleaning it from what I would call “SeshanSpeech.” 

If Seshan gave the commission any more wisdom than what had been passed on to me, I do not know. Anyway, the meandering inquiry into the alleged foreign conspiracy theory served one political purpose. When its report was leaked, the relations between the two parties, DMK and Congress, ruptured. That there was a decisive hiatus between the content of the commission’s report and its leaked version was known only after a lot of muddy water flowed down the Coovum River.  

If any official exercise in Seshan’s career mattered much, though not as much as CEC, it was during his tenure as district collector, Madurai. It is an ancient centre of culture and devotion, and dynastic daredevilry, outpacing modern Chennai. It turned out to be the fulcrum of anti-Hindi agitation which it was Seshan’s brief to face and douse. In spite of Prime Minister Mehru’s assurance that English would continue to be India’s link language as long as non-Hindi speaking people wanted it. It was a tough brief, instructions from Chennai not being helpful.

Violence erupted in one college where a favourite professor of Seshan was the principal. Seshan had pangs of conscience when the agitating students were disciplined by force. The young district collector felt it was a time for toughness, and he did not want to be caught lacking. HIs hot-cold dictum to police officials was final and inexorable: “Shoot if you must; when you shoot, make sure you give me one body for one bullet.”

The sporadic agitation had, Seshan suspected, some foreign encouragement. When I asked him how or what he felt so, what evidence there was to back up the thesis, he educated me by saying he was the district collector who could have a lot of sensitive information coming his way. So be it, I told myself. Unauthorizedly, I watered down the fury of certain inferences when I was writing his story with a chapter on “A CIA Agent.” Time was when a CIA hand was seen every untoward episode. When the trend persisted some years later, a boisterous Swatantra MP, Piloo Modi, started appearing in public places with a badge on his kurta announcing “I am a CIA agent.”

Tamil sensitivities were hurt when our book on Seshan was about to hit newsstands. Politicians of all hues jumped into the fray in an act of competitive extremism. Naturally, Chief Minister Jayalalitha led the army of agitators by waking up a judge at an odd hour to obtain a stay on the book-related function in New Delhi. She got it; so did those who followed her. The book had become pretty stale when the case about it was folded up in an Andhra court to which the Supreme Court had referred it.

This short story was told only to make one obvious point. There was some tentative effort to close the case with a gobbledegook of an explanation, clarifying our intention and its outcome, perhaps with an insinuation of my getting it all not quite right, short of an apology from Seshan. That did not happen. What struck me was his silence in “An Autobiography.” The old CIA agent had apparently been disbanded!

One suspects there is a certain masochist streak in Seshan as evidenced by some of his perforations on himself. He has devoted a full chapter for a discussion on his public and private persona with his unorthodox comments.  Questions are raised and instantly answered about his megalomania, spiritualism, relations with colleagues and so on. 

To a sample question about his proclivity for dictatorship, this is the answer: “Like all praises, this criticism was part of what came on my plate. Even now I do not need a certificate of merit, most certainly not from those who had axes to grind or feathers to nest.”

Even when it was a barbed remark, Seshan would not take it lying down, never lightly or dismissively. He seemed to enjoy the aura his detractors spread around him with chosen words of opprobrium or with fractured facts. Consider this truculent quote blown big on the back jacket: “At a press conference, Bihar CM Laloo Prasad Yadav said that I was flouting rules of constitutional propriety as a part of a Congress-BJP-SP conspiracy to prevent the Janata Dal from gaining a majority in the Lok Sabha.”  Laloo promised to seek the “personal intervention” of the President to curb Seshan’s anti-democratic functioning. 

Whether Laloo kept his word is beside the point. What is pertinent is that CEC Seshan was becoming steadily popular in the public mind. Many looked up to him as a role model and saviour. The masses viewed him as a man of destiny and enjoyed his diatribes against supercilious politicians. In a BBC programme, he was pictured as an egregious man in authority who would eat a politician or two for breakfast. All in all, his image as a much-needed do-gooder for the ossified electoral system, a tormentor of the conservative political class, pleased him too. Watching his stupendous ascent in the mega election junction, now and then, spreading out his heavy weight on the carpet, sitting cross-legged, he would ask an interlocutor what people thought about him. 

There could be only one answer and that pleased him. So much so that such popular endorsements enhanced his reputation and will to fight it out with the official applecart. Nothing happened. Cloistered corridors of the Indian power tower were agog with gossip about what Seshan would do to redeem the honour of the electoral system. He was overwhelmed by the national gossip. In pursuance of it, he set out to present himself as the President of India. He had to suffer a big blow before he realized that appearances were often deceptive.

So it was in Seshan’s case. He had sought support for his presidential candidature from all parties, big and small. While each one was effusive, offering nice words of support, Seshan couldn’t believe hypocrisy could be so patent and pervasive. Seshan, expectedly, lost the race. Reviewing the race and the loss, he told me, with predictable despair and pique, not one of those who had offered support gave it. That was a grossly embittering end of an electoral mission to make polls purposeful and fair, a mission to make a difference to the way India held its elections. His sullen mood showed through this last line of his autobiography: “As I look back on my life and career, all that I can think and say is: “Life has been great, stormy but great.”

It is fun revisiting the memory of a person who died four years ago, who made waves in national political life three decades earlier. Why he chose to let his memoir a posthumous account, denying others an opportunity to contest his views and facts, and himself even more clarifications, is unclear. It couldn’t be that he was running away from the realities of life; That was not his style. His autobiography that should become an intimate and incisive document on Indian elections, as they unfolded in the past seven decades, will necessarily be a sought-after guide to the past. It has been presented, as it were, by Nixon Fernando, a self-styled research assistant to Seshan. Copyright rests with Nixon

01-Jul-2023

More by :  K Govindan Kutty

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