A Real Hero : T. N. Seshan

5e79f-seshanlargeNearly everyday you meet people who criticise the government, system, environment — just everything — and lament over the poor state of affairs. They seem to have lost hope and their ultimate conclusion is that nothing could be done. They seem to have compromised with the sad state of affairs, and have nearly given up. Youth complain that they have no role models. Middle age people have drawn the conclusion that the only way out is the one shown by Amitabh Bachchan in his early movies. Interestingly, as they also say, everyone wants that Bhagat Singh be born, but in neighbour’s house, not one’s own. Ironically, we also see that everyone has some suggestion to make — to the finance minister, to the foreign minister, to cricketers — to everybody. It seems that everyone knows what needs to be done; everyone seems to have a clear idea about what is the one thing that would make India a glorious nation in every respect. Still, things do not change. When elections are held, the erstwhile opposition party comes into power, but nothing changes. Things get a little better, or a little worse, but on the average, nothing changes. Where then is the gap? What is missing?

What I am going to narrate you is the story of a jungle. It is a real story. Surely, further details are there, but either they are understandably hidden from public view or not necessary for our purpose here. Once you are interested, you would get all the details. It happened only 20 years ago, which is nothing as compared to the long history that this country boasts of. But I am surprised that how few people are aware of this story; and out of those who do know, how few do remember it. In my personal opinion, this story needs to be told again and again; in fact, it needs to be made a part of school curriculum. The reason is simple — because it shows the triumph of human spirit and human courage; it shows that change is possible if an individual decides that change must be brought about. Things are not easy and several hard battles are to be fought; most of the time one is alone — friends move away and enemies just multiply. But then, truth alone wins. In this way stories are created. Stories of the heroes of our times. They are the ones who have kept our faith in truth alive.

I definitely remember him whenever elections are declared — whether for parliament or for legislative assemblies. So friends, now you know which jungle I am talking about. This is the story of the complete chaos and anarchy of the Indian elections. Candidates would fight elections, and once they win, they would change parties. Though legal age for casting your vote was 18 years, you would easily find 14-16 years old boys standing in queues at polling stations. Oh yes, when your own turn came, you would find that someone has already cast the vote for you, and didn’t even wait to receive your thanks. Strong and well-built men would be roaming around the polling booth. No, they were not security personnel, they were there to make sure that you did not break your promise that you made to their leader. In fact, the whole system was very swift and efficient. Once they doubted that the trust of the voters is flickering, or that it is too much of a headache to guard each and every voter, they would decide to bring in their own ballot boxes, full of ballot papers, all stamped — of course, for their candidate, and also few for the opposition candidate — just to avoid suspicion. Otherwise, it would not look good. These are only major highlights. The various ways through which an election could be won were numerous, and it only strengthens our faith in the creativity of the Indian mind. This is the story of the Indian elections. India — the largest democracy in the world.

Elections were rigged nearly as a rule. In fact, we took it for granted that they would be rigged. Still, people went to cast their votes. The optimism and hope that Indians carry is astonishing. It is like students know that however hard they study, the one who copies most efficiently would secure highest marks; still they prepare well and write their exams. Aspiring candidates are fully aware that the one with big contacts and heavy pockets would get the job; still they appear for interviews. Citizens were not ignorant; they were fully aware of the gloomy state of affairs. Still, they dreamt. They dreamt that one day all this would end, and everything would turn out well, and as it should be. How would that happen, or when would that occur, nobody knew. But somewhere someone was watching and listening.  And he knew.

So, in that jungle came a lion. A big, fat, old lion. He walked slowly like an elephant, he stared at you like an eagle, and he roared like a tiger. He refused to move back, he refused to bend. He just simply said — “No. I won’t”.

His name is T. N. Seshan.

You have witnessed how Modi came to power in 2014, and heard all the voices in favour and against his campaign rhetoric. You have also seen Kejriwal sweeping Delhi elections, and must be wondering whether he would be able to keep his promises. But it amuses me to think how come nobody pointed a finger saying that the elections were rigged. It was because 20 years back, Seshan was the Election Commissioner.

It is indeed a privilege to see a hero in action. We were too young to really apprehend the complications of governance, yet sufficiently grown up to appreciate what was going on. For us children at that time, it was fun. It was unbelievable, yet it was true — the drama being played in front of us every other day. Though we seldom showed any interest in TV news bulletins, yet we rushed to the TV set whenever any press conference held by Seshan was aired. He kept us glued, and it gave our parents hard time explaining to us what he meant and wanted to do — or rather, was going to do.

There were several steps that he took. The practice of candidates changing parties was stopped, of course. But Seshan went far beyond that. Photo identity cards were issued to all voters of the country, and electronic voting machines were introduced. The model code of conduct was followed in full force. That meant that the leader cannot cross the time limit given for his rally. That also meant that loud-speakers would no longer be shouting and screaming for the whole night. He refused to allow any compromises. Elections had to be free and fair, else he would not accept them. For him, it was all about knowing his duty and performing it well, without laxity, without compromise, with honesty to himself and his post. The drama appeared as Seshan vs rest of others. Well, not really. The election machinery was with him, so were the citizens of the country. People did co-operate. They saw what he was aiming at and moved forward at his command. Of course, citizens had to follow government orders, yet we hardly ever came across any annoyance in compliance. It is wonderful how he and his successors were able to take citizens into confidence so that the nation was free of doubts about the steps being taken.

And then came the Bihar elections — a testing ground for the whole electoral body — from the person on duty at the polling booth to the election commissioner. Seshan was not happy or satisfied with the results, so he called for voting again and again until they were sufficiently fair. And you can imagine the burden that the exercise brought to the voters. Still, the voters followed. There were further steps, the details can be found in print and electronic media.

Needless to say, there was opposition to him. Nobody likes to give up power so easily. Every day we saw politicians shivering and wondering what would be his next step. In order to control his actions, instead of having a single Election Commissioner, an Election Commission of three members was proposed, a step which Seshan opposed. Noted cartoonist R. K. Laxman conveyed the true state of politicians’ mind in one of his strips where he depicted a commission consisting of three members — all Seshans, with the underlying message — “What if”? Fortunately, the scenario did not occur. A three-member commission was constituted, with Seshan as chairman. Things became difficult, yet they moved. Seshan was with the commission for 6 years, a period during which several steps were taken to ensure free and fair elections. The commissions to follow continued the work initiated by Seshan, and a legacy was created. It was definitely not an easy task. So whenever you go to cast your vote next time or accept the election results and the verdict, do remember that legacy, which made it possible.

Most of the time we would find that the change we all thought to be impossible asked for just a small initiative, but demanded a lot of strength — strength of character, will and endurance, strength to stand up against opposition. This is the state which Swami Vivekananda described as ‘when the whole world is up against you’. There is indeed a human spirit that makes changes possible. You may not be called upon to run the country, or to fight enemy armies, or to lift mountains. But your own life journey is composed of small hilltops, which might appear to be insurmountable to you. To climb over these hills, to win over all the life’s battles, you need to be a lion — one with the gaze of an eagle and roar of a tiger; someone who dares to say “No, I won’t”!  Friends, the real strength is that of character. Refuse to give up, refuse to budge, even if your colleagues do not help, even if your friends turn their heads away, even if your family advises you to compromise, even if you are left alone, all by yourself. See the truth, stick to it, do not let it go. Know your duty, chase your dreams, pursue your ambitions. Whatever needs to be done, do it today, now. Indeed that is true — “You can win over all your weaknesses, because you come from that Lord whose strength nobody can stand against”.

I wish you all success.

Suggested Reading:

1) The unsparing rod, by Javed M. Ansari, India Today, 15 December 1994. LINK
2) T. N. Seshan : Chief Election Commissioner, Outlook, 23 October 1996. LINK

3) Autumn of Al-Seshan: Lest we forget how bad it was till he cleaned it up, by G.C. Shekhar, The Telegraph, 7 April 2014. LINK

6 thoughts on “A Real Hero : T. N. Seshan

  1. Maniparna Sengupta Majumder

    I remember T N Seshan. Though I was just a kid at the time he was the election commissioner, but having a family full of politically conscious people, helps… 😀 Bengalis and politics, perhaps you know, are almost synonymous… 😀


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