Saturday, Jun 22, 2024 | Last Update : 05:53 AM IST

  Books   08 Jul 2023  Book Review | T.N. Seshan enforced the rulebook, gave EC its formidable reputation

Book Review | T.N. Seshan enforced the rulebook, gave EC its formidable reputation

Published : Jul 9, 2023, 12:05 am IST
Updated : Jul 9, 2023, 12:05 am IST

Many believe that Seshan put the fear of the Election Commission in the hearts of politicians.

Cover photo of 'Through the Broken Glass: An Autobiography' by T.N. Seshan. (Photo by arrangement)
 Cover photo of 'Through the Broken Glass: An Autobiography' by T.N. Seshan. (Photo by arrangement)

For about five years, from 1990 to 1995, T.N. Seshan as the chief election commissioner was the much loved middle class hero who seemed to have to set out to clean the Augean stables of the Election Commission of India. This autobiography covers his tenure as the CEC in 250 pages of 349. He almost fits into the stereotype of the self-righteous south Indian Brahmin, more specifically the Tamil Brahmin, who is dour and upright. Instead of offering revealing insights into people and processes when he served as a bureaucrat for more than three decades before he became the CEC in 1990, he has given a logbook of his time in the government, starting as a sub-collector in Dindigul and collector in Madurai, where he confronted his administrative superiors with a taunt that they should send in writing what they wanted done. And had his way. The famous one in the early part of his career is his run-in with Sheikh Abdullah, who was under arrest and moved to Kodaikanal, which was in Madurai district, and he as collector had to deal with him. He would read all the letters that Abdullah wrote as part of his duty. Once, Abdullah insisted that he wants to send a letter to President S. Radhakrishnan, and demanded that Seshan pass it on without reading it. Seshan refused and Abdullah went on a fast unto death. Then Abdullah let him read the letter which was an innocuous and formal, and broke his fast.

The only gossip that Seshan gives out, and it is not gossip as such because it almost affected his career. He was posted as deputy secretary at the Atomic Energy Commission and he says he was caught in the personal battle between Homi Sethna and Vikrama Sarabhai. Sethna was expecting to be named chairman of the commission but Prime Minister Indira Gandhi chose Sarabhai. Sarabhai dealt in a friendly with Seshan whereas Sethna was hostile. It was Sethna who wrote the confidential report of Seshan because Sarabhai was not to be bothered with bureaucratic nitty-gritty. And Sethna wrote a damaging report. Seshan threatened to resign if the CR was not corrected because it would affect his career. The matter went before Indira Gandhi and she summoned him. When he entered her room, she asked without looking up whether he was aggressive, abrasive and a bully as mentioned by Sethna. She was satisfied with Seshan’s answers, and she called Sethna in his presence and asked, “Homi, why have your written this in the CR of this young man?” The remarks were expunged. This was in 1972.  Forward to 1986. Seshan was appointed secretary of forests and environment ministry. But after an unidentified person attacked him on October 2, 1986, Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi asked him to inquire into the incident. When Seshan wanted to know why was he being asked to, Seshan notes that Rajiv Gandhi said, “You speak frankly. You do not fear anyone. Because of these qualities, I am giving you the job.” And in 1989 when Rajiv Gandhi decided to appoint him as Cabinet secretary, Seshan says Rajiv Gandhi told him,” My ministers do not like the fact that I am appointing you as the Cabinet secretary. They harbour fear about you.” And when Sheila Dikshit walked into the room and Rajiv Gandhi wanted to know her opinion on Seshan being appointed Cabinet secretary, Seshan says she said, “Seshan is tough, so we are all apprehensive.”

It is his tenure as CEC that engages Seshan’s attention more than anything else. He gives details of the orders he issued, the court’s observations on his orders, and he quotes rather extensively from newspapers that covered the court proceedings. And he cites The New York Times editorial of February 10, 1995: “If a poll were taken to find India’s most admired personality, a strong candidate would be T.N. Seshan. And if a poll were taken to find the public figure that Indians consider most high-handed, Mr Seshan would be a probable winner again… His major weakness may be his ego… But he contends that in this, too, he has matters under control.”

Many believe that Seshan put the fear of the Election Commission in the hearts of politicians and that it was something that helped improve the quality of Indian democracy. Surprisingly, the middle class that admired Seshan does not seem to mind that the Election Commission today is being perceived as pliant and meek. It might be because they feel the Election Commission is doing its job well thanks to the precedent set by Seshan.

Through the Broken Glass: An Autobiography

By T.N. Seshan


pp. 357; Rs. 795

Tags: tn seshan, book review, autobiography