While it was as much the Seshan effect, the ECI’s efficiency in conducting elections in a fair manner also stems from the fact that it is an institution that is empowered to resist interference by the state’s executive and the legislative arms.
TN Seshan, who died on Sunday, will be best remembered for his 1990-1996 stint as the chief election commissioner. Under Seshan, the Election Commission of India (ECI), a constitutional body, earned its repute of being the resolute arbiter of elections in India that it is seen as today. Even the most trenchant of his critics agree that Seshan set the standard for efficiency in preserving the fairness and independence of the election process, and was married to the laws and statutes governing the conduct of elections. Indeed, during the 1993 general elections, provisions that had been rarely invoked were yielded with an unsparing hand—nearly 1,500 candidates were disqualified for three years for failing to submit expenditure accounts while nearly 14,000 candidates had been disqualified for submitting false information. In Uttar Pradesh, incidence of booth capturing fell from 873 in 1991 to 255; the number of those killed in poll-related violence fell, too.
While it was as much the Seshan effect, the ECI’s efficiency in conducting elections in a fair manner also stems from the fact that it is an institution that is empowered to resist interference by the state’s executive and the legislative arms. Institutions with teeth—the Comptroller and Auditor General is another good example—have historically served to preserve the faith of the masses in democracy and governance in the most challenging of times. Given how efficient institutions genuinely empowered to hold the legislative accountable have proven, it is necessary that the political class doesn’t undermine their functioning. Just as assaults on the ECI—allegations of EVM tampering sans proof, going after election commissioners for enforcing code of conduct, etc—threaten its credibility, laws that make information commissioners beholden to political masters will erode transparency. The political class must beware the consequences of public trust getting eroded.