November 11, 2019
The country remembers Thirunellai Narayanswamy Seshan as the man who gave teeth to the Election Commission and made it a body to respect and fear. But those in the Tamil Nadu IAS cadre were not surprised by what Seshan did at Nirvachan Sadan. Because the man from Palakkad always liked to be in the driver’s seat, deciding the route that had to be taken.
Sample this story from the mid-1960s. About a year into the post of the Transport Commissioner of Tamil Nadu, the bus drivers at the State Metropolitan Transport Corporation went on strike. Not amused, Seshan got into a bus and drove it himself from T Nagar to Parrys Corner in Chennai (then Madras). When questioned, Seshan triumphantly produced a Heavy Motor Vehicle driving license. The strike was soon called off.
As an IAS officer, Seshan went on to occupy the highest office of the land, becoming Cabinet Secretary. But it was during his innings as Chief Election Commissioner that he threw the rule back at the political class. “I have politicians for breakfast,” he said, providing meaty one-liners to the media. “Al-Seshan” was another tag that stayed with him.
One of his most spoken about encounters was with Lalu Prasad Yadav, ahead of the 1995 assembly elections in Bihar. Seshan had gone on record to say the elections would be the toughest in his tenure as CEC. That was because Lalu as CM had refused to adhere to the deadline set by the EC to issue Identity cards to all voters and when Seshan approached the Supreme court with a plea to postpone the polls due to the absence of the I-cards, he was chastised and reminded he had no such powers.
The story goes that during a long phone call between the two, Seshan read out the riot act to the Bihar chief minister. Lalu, another master of one-liners, went on to say that Bihar was not witnessing an assembly election, it is “Seshan vs Nation”. Incidentally, Seshan himself would recount the anecdote as he believed it buttressed his image as a tough, no-nonsense CEC.
Those of us who interacted with Seshan during his days at the EC would recall he would always answer the landline at his residence himself with the booming voice “Seshan Speaking”.
My friend senior journalist Rajesh Kalra in a blog wrote about being present when PV Narasimha Rao, then Prime Minister, called Seshan because the CEC was threatening to cancel the bypoll in Nandyal in Andhra Pradesh where Rao was the candidate, because of complaints of overspending. The byelection was important because Rao had to become a member of Parliament in order to continue in the top job.
Kalra wrote : “At the height of such tension one day, I was sitting with Seshan at his home on Pandara Road. The phone rang. Seshan pressed the reply button on the speaker phone and I could hear the voice of the powerful private secretary to Rao on the other side: Sir, this is ****, PM would like to speak to you. I looked on in anticipation, and excitement, for I was aware of the stories doing the rounds. Barely did I hear the PMO’s hold-on music, I heard Seshan count. 1 – 2 – 3. Click. He disconnected the line. I was dumbstruck. That…that was the Prime Minister, I said, almost in shock.
Rajesh, I am the Chief Election Commissioner of India, NOT government of India, Seshan retorted angrily to me in his booming voice. Sure enough, within a minute the phone rang again and the same push-reply-button routine followed. It was Rao himself on the line. Seshan immediately picked up the handset after this and I could hear only one side of the conversation where he told Rao about the wrong things his supporters were indulging in.”
Seshan was not one to waste time. Journalists who interacted with him in the 1990s when he presided over the Election Commission recall that he would call off the appointment if the interviewer was late by even a minute. That did not surprise those who had seen him in action in Tamil Nadu.
Like this instance when he was Industries Secretary and had called for a meeting of all district Industries commissioners. He asked the commissioner from Trichy what he would do if he encountered a wealthy entrepreneur who sought his advice. The Trichy bureaucrat got up and said in Tamil, “No, no Sir. No need to invest here. It is too risky. It is more safe to park the money in a bank.” Seshan glared and walked out in a huff. The meeting was over.
Seshan was notorious for his short temper. In fact, during his innings as Cabinet Secretary, he is known to have sacked 8-10 lift operators and a couple of drivers. Seshan himself referred to how one of his bosses once asked him why is it that the single emotion he evoked in people was fear.
Seshan said, “Not that I tried to get people to be afraid of me but what I cherish most is the rigid attention to integrity. I don’t possess a single rupee which is a false rupee.”
A retired IAS officer who was Seshan’s junior recalls how Bhajan Lal as Minister of Agriculture and Environment and Forests had a word of advice for someone who wanted to refer an issue to Seshan.
“Be careful about what you send to Seshan. He is very able but very difficult to deal with,” Bhajan Lal is reported to have said.
“This reputation came from the confidence Seshan had about facts. He was the first cabinet secretary who called for a review of the functioning of all ministries. I recall the first meeting where top officers from the Agriculture ministry were shaking,” says the retired IAS officer.
But if there existed an abrasive Seshan who annoyed his Chief Secretary in Tamil Nadu in 1962 so much that he was transferred six times through the course of a single day, there was a softer side to him as well. When he was about to turn 60, he wanted to invite the family of a retired bureaucrat in Madras who had helped him prepare for the Civil Services. At 3 in the afternoon, the Chief Election Commissioner of India drove his ambassador car himself, asked the security personnel to stay out, fell at the feet of the couple, took their blessings and extended the invite.
Clearly, a bus or a car did not matter. Seshan just liked being in the driver’s seat.