IT IS RARE to find such an outpouring of grief on the passing away of a government officer who retired about 25 years. But then former chief election commissioner T N Seshan was no ordinary officer. He was an institution in himself.
He not only made the Commission an effective and independent organisation, he changed the way elections are conducted in the largest democracy of the world. As one of his successors, A Y Qureshi pointed out, he put the fear of God in the politicians. He had himself said during the course of an interview that he "ate politicians for breakfast”.
Unfortunately the Election Commission has again become the hand maiden of the government. Anyone defying the government diktat or seeking to question the top brass can invite serious trouble for himself. This is what is happening with Ashok Lavasa, a former Haryana cadre IAS officer, who just retired as an Election Commissioner and is facing the wrath of the powers that be. Shall discuss this a little later.
Election Commission was formed as an autonomous organisation, drawing powers directly from the constitution, to conduct elections. It was given huge powers to ensure that elections were conducted in a fair manner. Yet the chief election commissioners before Seshan did not exercise their powers.
Old timers would recall how common it was to hear about booth capturing, particularly in the Hindi heartland, and the use of weapons and threats by goonda elements hired by politicians. The booth capturing involved forcible stamping of ballot papers by goons even as the actual voters were made to stand outside the booths.
They would also recall how money power was used by certain politicians and how the campaign used to be a long and noisy affair. There was no one to enforce rules on expenditures and it had increasingly become difficult for a common man to contest elections.
What Seshan did was to to strictly enforce the law. He staggered elections into phases to deploy security forces to ensure that the elections were not rigged. He capped election expenditure and ensured that all expenditure was counted by independent auditors even to include cost of serving tea and pakoras
to supporters. He even took action if candidates defaced and painted appeals for votes on walls.
He enforced discipline by issuing notices that those who exceed expenditure would get disqualified and even debarred from contesting future elections. He enforced rules to register FIRs against those who violated rules. He made the candidates declare their income and expenditure. The candidates were also made to declare their criminal history if any.
While proving a terror for politicians, he also initiated massive electoral reforms. These included shifting from paper ballots to electronic voting machines, issuance of voters’ identity cards, fixing of upper limits of expenditure during electioneering, introduction of model code of conduct and strengthening of state election commissions.
Seshan who did not come into limelight even though he had remained an IAS officer for three decades and even remained cabinet secretary, proved to be a one man army and left a lasting impact.
His innings is indeed a contrast with what is happening now. The Election Commission has again become the hand maiden of the government. The way it acted, or did not act, during the recent Lok Sabha elections, would have defiantly pained Seshan.
The most glaring favouritism it indulged in was to overlook the reported divisive and communal statements by top BJP political leaders. The Commission, which is now a three member organisation, framed a rule that all decisions taken by a majority of the members would be binding.
Thus when one of the election commissioners, Ashok Lavasa (in pic)
, gave divergent verdict, he was over ruled. He was not allowed even to record his dissenting views.
Worse, he is now being hounded even though he has retired as election commissioner. The government has not only opened investigations against him and set the Income Tax department and Enforcement Directorate after him, inquiries have also been opened against his wife, son and even sister. Neither the judiciary nor the opposition are coming forward in his support.
No one, including the government of the day, would have dared to unleash the state power against him or the Commission if Seshan was around. He drew the power of the Election Commission directly from the constitution.
Unfortunately a series of steps in the recent past have sought to dilute the standards set by Seshan. The government has relaxed and amended norms for finding of political parties. Amendments to the Foreign Contribution (Regulations) Act have opened doors for indirect foreign funding of political parties. Besides, the cap on corporate donations has been removed. Even worse is the introduction of electoral bonds in which the donors’ identity would remain a secret.
Seshan would not have favoured such regressive steps and would have put in a fight to defend the spirit of the Commission. It is very rare to come across such officers who leave an indelible mark on history.
(The author, a freelance journalist, is a former Resident Editor of Indian Express, Chandigarh, and reported on the political developments in Jammu and Kashmir, North-Eastern India, Gujarat, Himachal Pradesh, Haryana and Punjab in his long, illustrious career.)
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