Till T N Seshan took charge as the Chief Election Commissioner of India, the common man had little idea about the Election Commission (EC).
I say this with confidence because I had served close to 25 years in the EC by the time of his appointment in 1990. I was often met with blank stares whenever I introduced myself as an employee of the Commission at social gatherings. But that changed with Seshan.
He put the EC on the map. More importantly, he put the fear of the EC into erring political parties, candidates and the government. So much so, that the government clamped his powers by appointing two more commissioners to the EC.
The transformation in the EC’s stature during Seshan’s term was miraculous. I am witness to the time when the Commission was treated with irreverence. It did not have the power even to create a peon’s post. Our letters and directives to the Union and state governments were almost always ignored. In fact, the Model Code of Conduct, whose violations are covered so aggressively by the media today, was only a piece of paper at one time.
Seshan fought many battles for the Commission, but there’s one I remember in particular and I credit it for changing the EC’s relationship with the state governments forever.
In the 1990s, the poll panel was struggling to appoint a Chief Electoral Officer for West Bengal because the state government was being uncooperative. The state refused to relieve officers recommended by the EC for the post on flimsy grounds. A miffed Seshan, in an unprecedented move, stopped all communication with West Bengal.
I remember seeing orders of that time which were marked to all states, except West Bengal. He even threatened to not hold elections in the state unless the government relented on the Commission’s choice for the CEO post. Communication resumed only after the court’s intervention, which directed West Bengal to cooperate with EC.
A stickler for punctuality, he also changed the work culture within the Commission. Meetings would begin dot on time, and officers were not allowed to enter even a minute later. To ensure that everyone reported to office by 9 am, he would call officers at random on their official landline number. He would make these phone calls from home, between 9 am and 9.15 am. Whoever got a phone call during this 15-minute window had to answer with his name, not with a “hello”. In hindsight, it seems amusing, but at that time, no officer would leave his seat for those 15 minutes. Not even to go to the washroom.
It was Seshan who gave the country the first taste of what a fiercely independent constitutional authority can achieve. His passing away marks the end of an era.
(As told to Ritika Chopra; S K Mendiratta served with EC for more than 53 years and retired as its legal advisor)