The passing on of Mr T N Seshan marks the end of a glorious era of resurgence of democracy about three decades ago. The very mention of his name was enough to put the fear of God in the hearts of recalcitrant politicians in the first half of the nineties, and respect in the heart of every Indian ever since. I have no hesitation in saying that all of his successor CECs basked in his glory, though we always carried the burden of being compared with him all the time.
I worked under him as observer several times. He once sent me to Danapur in Bihar, which was Lalu Prasad Yadav’s constituency. On another occasion, I was deputed to Mylapore where Jayalalithaa lived (and where Mr Seshan too, had his house). He was having a running battle with both of them, which made my tough job doubly difficult.
I recall the Bihar election in 1996, when I was posted as an observer. Mr Seshan concluded his briefing with these reassuring words: “Don’t worry. Nothing will happen — except a bomb on your face and a bullet through your stomach!” Sure enough, I saw two bomb explosions a few yards away. Fortunately I returned with my stomach unpunctured!
The awe and fear he evoked in us bordered on terror. Nobody had the guts to argue with him, not to speak of falling foul of him. Yet, behind a tough exterior he had a soft heart. Once I was posted as observer in the Maoist area of Jharkhand. I had just got up from a slipped disc, and could not have stood the bad roads in the tribal belt. In the briefing he had called, I gathered the courage to request a change of my posting to an urban constituency because of my medical condition. Very sweetly, he ordered that I be exempted altogether.
When I became the CEC myself, I went to his house in Chennai to seek his blessings. He was extremely affectionate, and asked his extremely gentle wife to give me some present. She brought a few things from which I picked up a sandalwood Ganesh, a souvenir I have cherished.
A few months ago, I published a book titled The Great March of Democracy: Seven Decades of India’s Elections. It carries a chapter written by Mr Seshan about the problems he faced to turn things around in the electoral system. Interestingly, it also carries a chapter on Mr Seshan by a French professor, Christophe Jaffrelot. I am happy I dedicated the book to two legends, Mr Sukumar Sen, the first CEC, and Mr TN Seshan, who took the Commission to new heights of authority, credibility and visibility.
I pray we get to see another Seshan in my lifetime.
(The writer is former Chief Election Commissioner of India)