On a day when one has been busy following the results of what has been touted as “Semifinals” i.e. the elections in few states of India, one cannot but feel happy/proud at the way the whole election process works in India. Elections in India today, whether they are the state elections or the Lok Sabha elections happen in a very smooth manner, well almost. The Election Commission (EC) which is an independent constitutional authority is responsible for conducting elections in India under the frame work of the Representation of Peoples Act, 1951. From the time the elections are called till the results are announced after counting and governments are formed, the entire process rolls out like a well-oiled machinery. There are very few parallels in India to the EC if you talk of “Sarkari” offices discharging their duties so efficiently. However it was not the case for quite some time since Independence.
The way elections in India are held can be categorized into 2 eras – the BS and AS era just like the “Before Christ (BC)” and “Anno Domini (AD)” era. For the uninitiated, BS is “Before Seshan” and AS is “After Seshan”. Tirunellai Narayana Iyer Seshan, popularly known as T.N.Seshan took over as the 10th Chief Election Commissioner (CEC) in the year 1990 and elections in India since then have never been the same. He was in office till 1996 before he retired. If today one views the office of the CEC and its incumbents with some reverence, it is certainly after 1990. In the time before 1990 which is the BS era, the office of the CEC was another sedate, sober one carrying out the job of conducting elections in the country in a very routine manner. Though the position was an independent one, till Seshan came in the CEC almost functioned as an office reporting to the Government of the day. But the same office transformed itself since 1990 when Seshan took over and has become what we see as one of the most efficient departments of the Government of India. We hardly remember the names of the CECs before Seshan. On a day when Seshan must be watching the election results sipping hot filter Kaapi from I guess Chennai, it will be good to recall few of the landmark changes he brought into the election process:
- Today, the moment elections are announced the political parties come under the purview of what is known as “Model Code of conduct”. As per this, among other things, the Government of the day cannot announce any luring sop or launch any program which can influence the voter once the elections are announced. In addition to this significant point, there are other mandatory requirements as well. Mind you this Model Code of Conduct is not any law under the statute but an ingenious intervention by Seshan to make the elections free and fair. Since then this Code of Conduct has been refined to include many other clauses as well and is today an established drill followed with discipline.
- In the BS era, on a polling day with much less media coverage and almost no or low security – it was free for all leading to rigging, booth capturing, fraudulent voting and what have you. It was common for voters to find their votes already cast when they go late in the day. Today it is not as bad due to
- the elections being conducted in a phased manner (and not in a single day as it used to be in the 80’s) so as to ensure sufficient police and security forces being made available across the state. When Seshan announced his plan of conducting elections in phases for the 1st time, it took everybody by surprise and there were many who questioned his wisdom evoking fears of keeping the ballot boxes safe,.. But he stuck to his guns and now, phased conduct of Lok Sabha elections and elections in larger states has become the norm and no EC even thinks of conducting elections in a single day. That he was in the Home Ministry earlier helped him to assess the logistical challenge for the troops movement. The model he came up for scheduling phased out elections is part of the EC’s Standard Operating Procedure.
- The introduction of the Voter’s identity card: One fine morning in Aug 1993, a maverick he is – Seshan announced that no more elections will be conducted in India without voter identity cards which have the photo and other details of the voters. It was an exercise of gargantuan proportion to issue a photo I-Card to all eligible voters and this call certainly put the Government in a quandary as to how the same could be implemented. Seshan thumped his foot down on this (as he always did) and got the Government to allocate funds in the budget and got this project underway. He relented only a bit in terms of time frame but ensured that the Government commits itself to this cause. I must add that for a complex country like India such a project needs a better project implementation rigour. Due to the very aggressive posturing of Seshan, the project got implemented though in a hap hazard manner (lot of mistakes in the cards, Duplication, Inadequate coverage of the entire population,…). Nevertheless the need for a Voter ID got in vogue in the country and still is.
- Enforcement of spending limits by candidates: The existing limits for spending for candidates always appear to be some kind of a joke when you actually see the kind of money which gets spent oops “invested” in elections. State funding of elections has been an idea which has been going the rounds but which needed legislation. In the meantime, Seshan introduced the concept of having officers going around the length and breadth of the electorate and filming/recording activities the candidates carry out in the garb of electioneering. With this initiative there have been very many instances where candidates have been disqualified post their victory under charges of unfair practices. Though money power is still omnipresent it is not as obvious as before.
- Timing and scheduling of elections: It is an established fact that Mrs. Gandhi used IB (Intelligence Bureau) to gather ground intelligence about the way the political wind was blowing and dismissed elected governments under some pretext. She then got the then EC to time the elections suitably. Not so in the AS era. Now the EC decides on the timing and scheduling based on various factors some as per the constitutional provisions and others as per need to conduct free and fair elections (weather, school holidays, religious festivals, …,…)
- Cancelling/Ordering Re–poll in case of mal practices: Seshan was quick to make assessment of any reported mal practices which happened on the polling day or before and order re-poll in those constituencies. This became an effective barrier for such activities.
Now when he brought in all these changes did the Government of the day keep quiet? Well not at all. It did its bit to clip his wings by making the EC a multi member body with one Chief Election Commissioner and 2 Election Commissioners. (Earlier it had just one CEC). Fortunately this change didn’t affect the functioning of the EC and may be made it more robust. Since Seshan, India has been fortunate to have some illustrious officers who served as CEC and continued the autonomous working style and authority of the EC. But to Seshan’s credit it must be said that we have not seen many substantive changes or game changing ideas since his departure. The EC has been by and large following the broad template Seshan had evolved for conducting free and fair polls in the country.
Seshan is reported to have famously said that men from Palghat were either great cooks or classical musicians or good bureaucrats. So as per him, that he was a good officer was because of where he hailed from. That was a very simplistic self-assessment of a man who was not known so much for his humility but certainly reputed for cleaning up Indian elections once for all.
Postscript: If there is one area where the Chinese feel envious of India it is the fact that we choose our leaders through elections that too of the free and fair type which people like Seshan ensured over a period of time. Can China get an “Aam Admi Party“??? Truly senSeshanal isn’t it??? On that note, 3 cheers🙂🙂🙂