TN Seshan, the face of Election Commission, no more

T N Seshan. (File Photo)

T N Seshan, the fearless bureaucrat who is credited with cleaning up and reforming the Indian election system singlehandedly by taking on everyone who came his way, passed away here on Sunday night. He was 86. 

The 1955-batch IAS officer, who served as the country’s top civil servant by holding the post of Cabinet Secretary before he was shunted out and later appointed as the Chief Election Commissioner (CEC) in 1990, was ailing for some time. 

Seshan, who shifted base here after his retirement in 1996, breathed his last at around 09.40 pm at his residence in upscale St. Mary’s road here, his family said. His wife Jayalakshmi had predeceased him. 

“Sad to announce that Shri T N Seshan passed away a short while ago. He was a true legend and a guiding force for all his successors. I pray for peace to his soul,” former Chief Election Commissioner S Y Quraishi wrote on Twitter.



The former bureaucrat will be remembered for his momentous tenure as CEC from 1990 to 1996 during which he not just redefined the role of Election Commission, which was till then seen as a toothless agency, but also changed the way elections take place in the country. He was feared by politicians for he always carried out his duties without any fear or doling out any favours.

Reforming the Indian election system, which was dominated by muscle and money power, by not toeing the line of those in government and by “maintaining the real autonomy” that was granted to the Election Commission by the Constitution was no mean feat. 

It is widely believed that Seshan was so plain-speaking and tough bureaucrat to handle that the government of the day in 1993 expanded the Election Commission into a three-member body with the addition of two Election Commissioners along with the CEC. 

Seshan had also knocked at the doors of the Supreme Court against the decision to expand the agency, but the top court had upheld the appointment of two commissioners and ruled that the Commission’s decisions had to be made with an absolute majority.

During his tenure as CEC, Seshan focussed all his attention on conducting elections free and fair and without any violence. It was during his tenure that the number of incidents of booth capturing during elections came down drastically. 

A tough administration who wouldn’t listen to anyone, Seshan introduced appointment of special observers to keep a check on money and muscle power during elections. He also was awarded the prestigious Ramon Magsaysay Award for government service in 1996 in recognition of his work in cleaning up the Indian election system. 

After his retirement, Seshan was the Opposition’s candidate for President’s post in 1997 but lost to K R Narayanan, who was supported by Congress and other parties that were part of the then ruling United Front (UF) government. 

Born in Thirunellai in Kerala’s Palakkad district on December 15, 1932, Seshan did his graduation at the prestigious Madras Christian College here before he joined the IAS. 

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