TN Seshan : a man of extremes

The media lavished praise on former chief election commissioner TN Seshan when he passed away in November 2019. Our Contributing Editor, Ravi Visvesvaraya Sharada Prasad, who knew TN Seshan well, presents a complete picture of this complex man, warts, and all Ravi Visvesvaraya Sharada Prasad
Enter Vol.14 ISSUE 7-9 DECEMBER 2020

The nation gratefully remembered Tirunellai Narayana Iyer Seshan, who passed away in Chennai in November 2019, as the man who cleaned up corrupt electoral practices during his tenure as Chief Election Commissioner from 1990 to 1996. However, most of his long career in the civil services was less than stellar.

TN Seshan was a complex person, a bundle of contradictions. Even as he tom-tommed his honesty and integrity, this 1955 batch IAS officer of the Tamil Nadu cadre was shamelessly sycophantic to his seniors in the civil service, and to his ministers. He was fawningly obsequious to Rajiv Gandhi, running alongside his car. Towards his juniors, TN Seshan was a harsh bully, rudely shouting at them for no reason at all and finding fault with whatever they did.

On the other side, he was hard working and meticulous, with an eye for detail, and went to extraordinary lengths to master whatever assignment he held. As chairman of the Chennai Transport Corporation, he personally drove the passenger buses and repaired bus engines so that he could know firsthand the problems faced by the bus corporation. At least once a week he would act as a conductor or bus driver, so that he could understand the problems of the commuters as well as of the staff. He thwarted a strike of the mechanics by challenging them: I can repair a bus engine better than any one of you can.

TN Seshan was a complex person, a bundle of contradictions. Even as he tom-tommed his honesty and integrity, this 1955 batch IAS officer of the Tamil Nadu cadre was shamelessly sycophantic to his seniors in the civil service, and to his ministers

TN Seshan got a coveted deputation to the central government in Delhi earlier than was his due, so keen were his fellow IAS officers in Tamil Nadu to get this him out of their state at any cost. In Delhi, the other IAS officers saw to it that he was posted to ministries which had very few IAS officers; so keen were they to avoid having to interact with the ‘self-righteous egoist’.

So, Seshan found himself in technical and scientific ministries for most of his career—Atomic Energy, Space, the Oil and Natural Gas Commission, and Environment and Forests. Being in technical and scientific ministries suited Seshan too. He had been a lecturer of physics at Madras Christian College in Chennai before he joined the civil services, and he showed off what he thought was his knowledge of science. He worked hard and took quick decisions. Scientists, who were used to bureaucratic red tape and lethargy, were glad to come across a civil servant who took quick decisions and who ensured that they were thoroughly implemented.

When telephoning my father HY Sharada Prasad, he would announce in his loud booming voice: “This is Seshan from Space”. This was to distinguish him from the more famous Seshan of those days, NK Seshan, who was secretary to Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. The two Seshans were not related at all, although both came from the same tiny community of Palakkad Iyers. We drew a caricature of TN Seshan shouting at my father from outer space, without the benefit of a telephone.

While in the Ministry of Environment and Forests, Seshan drafted far-seeing and forward-looking environmental rules and regulations. He pioneered initiatives such as water harvesting and the phasing out of two-stroke engines. Seshan also investigated the adverse environmental impact of large hydroelectric projects, such as the Narmada and Tehri dams. He shamelessly sucked up to his minister, the notorious Bhajan Lal. Since Seshan loudly proclaimed from the rooftops about how honest and incorruptible he was, the wily Bhajan Lal kept him away from “important sensitive” decisions. Seshan was okay with being sidelined by his minister.

The story goes that as environment Secretary, Seshan saw on the news ticker “Two Tigers Killed”, and threw a massive tantrum and ordered an immediate inquiry. His terrified staff were too scared to tell him that those killed were LTTE tigers.

Seshan became Special Secretary, Security, in charge of Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi’s security—it was at this time that he was seen running alongside Gandhi’s car. Seshan crossed the bounds of civil service propriety in assisting Gandhi with infrastructure during his election campaigns, under the excuse of ensuring security.

Gandhi realised that here was a pliant civil servant who could stretch rules and regulations to their limit, without actually breaking the letter of a single rule. Reeling under the Bofors scandal, Gandhi made Seshan defence secretary, and after a short while, elevated him to the topmost civil service post of cabinet secretary.

Being in technical and scientific ministries suited Seshan too. He had been a lecturer of physics at Madras Christian College in Chennai before he joined the civil services, and he showed off what he thought was his knowledge of science. He worked hard and took quick decisions. Scientists, who were used to bureaucratic red tape and lethargy, were glad to come across a civil servant who took quick decisions

Although abstemious himself, Seshan threw lavish alcohol-laced parties for journalists in an attempt to influence their coverage of the Bofors scandal.

The senior-most officer of the Indian Audit and Account Service, MMB Annavi, launched an investigation into the Bofors scandal. Annavi came close to unearthing uncomfortable information. Seshan greatly harassed and persecuted Annavi and destroyed his career.

As cabinet secretary, Seshan unhesitatingly obeyed orders from politicians, even if they were dubious. Abdicating his responsibilities as head of the civil services, Seshan never stood up for upright civil servants. Sundara Rau Narendra, who served as information advisor to prime ministers and as principal information officer, recalled: “When I wanted his protection as head of the civil services, Seshan refused to give me an appointment. I was under immense political pressure to do something against all rules, and I sent him a letter seeking his intervention. The file was summarily returned without it being recorded in his office. His PA told me that he was under instructions not to receive any papers from me or take my calls”.

After Gandhi lost office in 1989, Prime Minister Vishvanath Pratap Singh obviously did not want a cabinet secretary who had tried to cover up the Bofors scandal. So he kicked Seshan upstairs to the Planning Commission, albeit with ministerial rank. But during those few days when he was cabinet secretary to Singh, Seshan had to deal with the kidnapping in Kashmir of the daughter of Home Minister Mufti Mohammed Sayeed. Moosa Raza, an IAS officer of the Gujarat cadre, who was then the Chief Secretary of Jammu and Kashmir, recalled:

“In those days before the advent of mobile phones, we communicated only through landlines, which could be easily tapped at the telephone exchange. It was suspected that many of those who worked at the exchange were sympathisers of the militants.

(Then Cabinet secretary TN) Seshan insisted that I speak with him only in Tamil, as it was unlikely that the exchange in Kashmir would have any Tamil-speaking staff sympathetic to the militants. (Raza was a Tamilian, a Navayat Muslim from Tamil Nadu). Our efforts were to keep the negotiations going through the intermediaries and, in the interim, locate the safe house and get her released through commando action.

Both the state police chief and the intelligence officials were opposed to the idea of using military force; they said it would pose a grave risk to the life of the hostage. The police and paramilitary forces stepped up their patrolling, and photos of Rubaiya Sayeed were widely circulated. Public opinion was mobilised to put pressure on the militants and the JKLF.

Statements were issued by opinion makers and political personalities, deploring the kidnapping of an innocent girl as an un-Islamic and unethical act. The CM (Dr Farooq Abdullah) was rather unhappy at the pressure being brought on the state government by the Centre to release the militants in exchange for the home minister’s daughter. He was apprehensive that this would set a trend and lead to more kidnappings in the future.

I was told that not only the Home Minister but also his colleagues were troubled by the prolonged negotiations and wanted the matter to be resolved as quickly as possible. In the first couple of days after the kidnapping, there was widespread condemnation of it in the press.

But as the days passed, there was a noticeable shift towards the primary objective of getting the girl released. Thereof the situation and hijack the girl while she was on her way to Sonawar.

Dr Abdullah, who had all along been opposed to the release of the militants, was even more upset at this turn of events. It was under extreme pressure from the Centre that he had even agreed to release the militants. But having to wait for three hours before knowing whether the government had been taken for a ride was not the kind of situation that either he or I were prepared to face. He was ready to tender his resignation there and then.

I think he spoke to the governor, who once again perhaps restrained him from doing so. At 2.30 am, I met the CM and apprised him of the Cabinet secretary’s approval and my subsequent conversation with him. He was dismayed.

‘They will destroy Kashmir,’ he said. I could hear the agony in his voice.

But reluctantly, he told us to go ahead and finalise the arrangements. The next three hours were excruciating. Even though I had obtained the necessary approvals, I was aware that these were all verbal. If anything went wrong, and for some reason the girl did not turn up, my head would be on the chopping block. There was every chance that everyone would wash their hands of the responsibility, and I would be accused of having released the militants off my own bat.

At 7.15 pm, a car pulled up at the house, and Rubaiya appeared. She seemed to be in good health, though shaken by her ordeal. Neither I nor the police ever got the opportunity of debriefing her. Rubaiya remained inaccessible to state and central intelligence. She could have given us valuable information, but I never even learnt where she had been held captive.

Seshan called to congratulate me on the successful conclusion of the episode. He was effusive in his praise and asked me to convey the government’s appreciation to my colleagues. A couple of years later, I met Seshan, who was then Chief Election Commissioner, at the VIP lounge in Delhi airport. As we walked towards the security clearance gate, I asked him, ‘I have always wondered about the sudden change in your approach when you dictated that ultimatum to me on the morning of 13 December. What was the reason for that?’

‘The game was much bigger,’ he said, with a sardonic smile. ‘The target was much higher.’

‘And what was that?’ I asked.

His reply is a story for another day.”

The Law and Commerce Minister in the Chandra Shekhar government, Subramanian Swamy, appointed Seshan as the Chief Election Commissioner in 1990. The two knew each other well from their Harvard days; Seshan had been a Mason Fellow at Harvard. The Prime Minister had his misgivings but went along.  Now that he had the protection of a statutory position and could not be harmed by politicians or civil servants anymore, Seshan was a man transformed. Thundering that he could be “removed only by an Act of God”, Seshan went hammer and tongs after corrupt politicians, and cleaned up the electoral system.

The same man who sucked up to dubious politicians, now thundered: “I eat politicians for breakfast”. The same man who hosted lavish alcohol-filled parties for reporters, in order to influence their coverage of the Bofors scandal, now dubbed all journalists as corrupt.

When Prime Minister PV Narasimha Rao subtly tried to influence him, Seshan banged down the phone, shouting at him: “I am the Chief Election Commissioner of the Indian nation, not of the Government of India or of the Prime Minister”.

He was dubbed Al Seshan, and Lalu Prasad Yadav coined the phrase: “Seshan versus the Nation”.

Seshan accused cabinet ministers Sitaram Kesari and Kalpanath Rai of influencing voters, and told Prime Minister Rao to drop them from his cabinet. There was a widespread backlash among politicians who accused Seshan of exceeding his authority. There were numerous feuds between Rao and Seshan, and the Prime Minister and other politicians wanted to rein in Al Seshan.

Several politicians wanted to move a resolution in Parliament to impeach Seshan. The wily but suave Rao realised the damage that an impeachment motion would do to the nation, so he quietly quashed these impeachment efforts in Parliament. Rao discovered that there was nothing in the law which prevented him from appointing additional election commissioners. So the Prime Minister appointed MS Gill and GVG Krishnamurthy as additional election commissioners.

A furious Seshan called Gill and Krishnamurthy donkeys and blocked their entering the building of the Election Commission. Seshan posed for magazine covers flexing his biceps and approached the Supreme Court to have them removed from office. But a five-judge Constitution bench of the Supreme Court dealt a stinging defeat to Seshan, ruling that Gill and Krishnamurthy had powers and voting rights equal to Seshan.

Seshan was roughed up by J Jayalalithaa. When he did not retaliate, he was asked by a journalist: “Is this because you are Tamil Nadu Seshan—your initials say so?” Seshan tried to have this journalist arrested but was put in his place by this journalist’s lawyers.

When reporters phoned him at his home, he would answer in the grand manner of an English butler: “Mr Seshan is not available”. When they pointed out that he himself was on the line, he would elaborate: “I am not saying that Mr Seshan is not at home, which would be a lie. I am saying that Mr Seshan is not available to give you information”.

Hot on the heels of a story, the self-proclaimed second-most important person in the country, Dileep Padgaonkar, phoned Seshan late at night to get his version. Seshan banged the phone down on Padgaonkar. The rest of the night, Seshan kept on phoning Padgaonkar, and cut off the line as soon as Padgaonkar answered.

Seshan and his wife Jayalakshmi (they had no children) led a spartan, abstemious life. He spent most of his civil service salary on donations to charitable causes and on buying books. He had a vast personal library of thousands of books on a diverse range of subjects, especially on economics and political science. His wife Jayalakshmi was hospitable, and I wonder how much more obnoxious Seshan would have been if not for her tempering influence. He was highly intelligent and amazingly well read on a wide range of topics;  and he made sure everyone knew how well read and scholarly he was. He was a stickler for punctuality and cleanliness. He would throw people out of his office if they were even a minute late. He frequently bragged: The toilets in my ministry are so clean that you can have your lunch in them. He was a know-all, giving his advice on every topic under the sun to all and sundry. He would keep sermonising to young women reporters covering his ministries about why they should get married.

He was extremely status conscious, and always asked everyone about their sub-caste, and their professional seniority, so that he could either kowtow to them or snub them.As soon as he became the Chief Election Commissioner in 1990, he thundered: “I don’t get a salary of Rs 9,000 a month and a status of a Supreme Court judge for nothing”, inviting sniggers since a salary of Rs 9000 was common in the middle rungs of the corporate sector.

While delivering a memorial lecture for my maternal uncle, he made statements such as: “There are no statesmen any more; only the Statesman newspaper. There are no titans any more, only the Titan wrist watches”.He bragged that he was a fantastic cook. He was a great connoisseur and patron of Carnatic classical music, about which he was deeply knowledgeable. He often said: “We Palakkad Iyers are known for four traits—great Carnatic musicians, top notch public servants, excellent cooks and big crooks”.

He was a deeply religious follower of the Kanchipuram Shankaracharya. When the Shankaracharya passed away, Seshan demanded Dhirubhai Ambani’s personal aircraft so that he could immediately fly to Kanchipuram. A huge furore broke out. Seshan called a press conference and wrote out a cheque in favour of Dhirubhai Ambani.

Seshan prided himself on his astrological and palmistry skills, but his own predictions for himself did not come true at all. He announced widely that his horoscope forecast that he would either become the President of India or the Secretary General of the United Nations. In fact, Seshan had even threatened Prime Minister Rao: “My next job is going to be either President of the nation or Secretary General of the United Nations, and so you had better not try to harm me”. But Seshan received a massive drubbing when he ran for President against KR Narayanan in 1997, getting the votes of only a few legislators from the Shiv Sena.

He spread a rumour that he would be appointed a Governor. When the press questioned him, he replied:

“My wife would not appreciate being called a governess”. He made attempts to enter politics, seeking support from the very politicians whom he had vilified when he was Election Commissioner. Every political leader snubbed him. He was soundly defeated when he stood for Parliament against Lal Krishna Advani. After all his attempts to enter politics failed miserably, Seshan and his wife Jayalakshmi retired to an old age  home in Chennai. They had no children, and few friends. He donated most of his civil service pension to numerous charitable causes.

The nation owes TN Seshan a debt of gratitude for cleaning up the corrupt electoral system. He also did excellent work when he was Secretary in the Ministry of Environment and Forests. But the fawning accolades in the media do not mention how he destroyed the careers of many diligent civil servants  in order to please his political masters, nor his role in trying to cover up the Bofors scandal.

He was honest in money matters, but he was not a man of principle. During his long career in the IAS, he stretched rules, procedures and conventions to their limit in order to please his political masters, but without actually breaking the letter of a single rule.  A very senior contemporary of his in the civil services summed him  up accurately: “TN Seshan kissed a  lot of arses, but he buggered a lot of arseholes too”. g


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