TN Seshan – Man Who Ate Politicians For Breakfast

A year into the demise of TN Seshan, the man credited with cleaning up the electoral system of India, LokMarg brings out many a hidden aspect of the most famous Chief Election Commissioner of India in a two-part series

The nation gratefully remembers Tirunellai Narayana Iyer Seshan, who passed away in Chennai yesterday on 10 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.

The son of a district judge, TN Seshan came from a highly educated family of government officials. In school, he was a classmate of the Metro Man E Sridharan. He followed his elder brother, TN Lakshmi Narayanan, into the IAS. 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 first-hand 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 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 obnoxious megalomaniac out of their state at any cost.

Seshan had harshly suppressed the anti-Hindi agitations in Tamil Nadu, earning him the wrath of the Dravida parties. He was shamelessly sycophantic towards the then chief minister Bhaktavatsalam. DMK and AIADMK politicians across decades – CN Annadorai, MG Ramachandran, and J Jayalalithaa – detested him, and castigated him in public. Seshan too said very nasty things about CN Annadorai in private conversations.

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 this rude self-righteous egoist. So TN 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. However, if any expert disagreed with Seshan on scientific and technical grounds, he took it as a personal insult, and unleashed his ire.

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, TN 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. He shamelessly sucked up to Rajiv Gandhi, running alongside his car. TN Seshan crossed the bounds of civil service propriety, in assisting Rajiv Gandhi with infrastructure during his election campaigns, under the excuse of ensuring security. My father was apprehensive that this could possibly lead to another Raj Narain – Indira Gandhi situation.

Rajiv Gandhi realized 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, Rajiv Gandhi made Seshan defence secretary, and after a short while, elevated him to the topmost civil service post of cabinet secretary. Seshan crudely threatened journalists who were writing about the Bofors scandal, and also tried to purchase them by dangling blandishments of tours and expensive mementos.

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 Accounts Service, MMB Annavi, launched an investigation into the Bofors scandal. Annavi came close to unearthing uncomfortable embarrassing information. TN Seshan greatly harassed and persecuted Annavi, and destroyed his career. Seshan also had the premises and vehicles of Annavi’s staff searched.

Unfortunately, the Comptroller and Auditor General, TN Chaturvedi, who had ordered MMB Annavi to investigate the Bofors scandal, did not protect him from Seshan’s wrath. Even after Annavi retired, Seshan opened investigations into decisions taken by Annavi three decades earlier. 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, TN 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 Rajiv 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 VP Singh kicked Seshan upstairs to the Planning Commission, albeit with ministerial rank. But during those few days when he was cabinet secretary to VP Singh, TN Seshan had to deal with the kidnapping in Kashmir of the daughter of home minister Mufti Mohammed Sayeed.

Read Part II Here: Flexing His Muscles

TN Seshan II – Flexing His Muscles

As cabinet secretary to VP 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 that Seshan “used strong and forceful language when dealing with his subordinates, but was meek and obedient with his bosses”, and that Seshan meekly gave in to Vishvanath Pratap Singh:

“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 T N) 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. (Moosa 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.

There was sympathy for her plight, and the pressure to release the militants and free her mounted.

I received a call from the Cabinet secretary at 1.30 am on 13 December.

In a rather stiff and formal tone, he said, ‘This is the Cabinet secretary to the GoI, T N Seshan, speaking to the chief secretary of the state of Jammu and Kashmir, Mr Moosa Raza. I am speaking from the chamber of the prime minister of India.’

‘The GoI desires the state government to note that it is their undiluted responsibility to ensure the safe release of the hostage without any injury to her, and we expect that all action you take will be consistent with this requirement.’

Having made this pontifical statement from the throne as it were, he abruptly disconnected.

The operative words were ‘at all cost’.

In other words, ‘release the militants’.

This also ruled out commando action, even if the police and the IB were to locate her whereabouts.

‘Without injury to her’ could only imply that.

Some of my advisors believed there was an implicit threat in the statement: If we could not get the girl released immediately, the state government would be held squarely responsible for the failure and may even be dismissed.

But it was still not clear to me whether the GoI had agreed to an immediate release of the imprisoned militants and desired us to accept the militants’s terms, or not.

After waiting for half an hour, I rang up the Cabinet secretary in the hope that he would have returned from the PM’s office by then and would clarify the sudden volte face.

I spoke to him in Tamil and asked to know the reason for the change in stance when I had almost concluded the negotiations without any loss of face to the government.

I also asked him about the implications of his message to me from the PM’s chamber.

Seshan was aware that he was a lame duck Cabinet secretary and his days in the Rashtrapati Bhavan annexe were numbered.

He could not stand up to a PM with an imperial streak in him.

The Raja of Manda (Vishwanath Pratap Singh) had his way.

That last conversation with Seshan told me all I needed to know about him: Here was a man given to using strong and forceful language when dealing with his subordinates, but meek and obedient when it came to his bosses.

The news was received by the CM and me with grave concern, as it negated all the efforts at negotiations made until then.

I felt that since the girl could be brought back without an exchange, it would be in the national interest to wait.

But my arguments did not find any favour in Delhi.

The CM was so perturbed by this unwarranted intervention that he contemplated submitting his resignation immediately.

I informed the governor of the latest developments and the CM’s state of mind.

Both (then governor) General (V K) Krishna Rao and I were hard put to dissuade him from such a precipitate action in the midst of a crisis.

We were to release the five militants to the three mediators, withdraw the police from certain localities and wait for three hours for Rubaiya to be handed over to us.

This proposal, fraught with unpredictable complications, was not acceptable to us.

I pointed out that once we had released the militants, we had no guarantee that the JKLF would honour its side of the bargain, particularly when there was a gap of three hours.

Anything could happen during those crucial hours.

Even if we trusted them to keep their side of the bargain, we had no way of knowing whether some other militant group opposed to the JKLF ideology (and there were many waiting on the sidelines for an opportunity) would take advantage of 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 TN 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, and he took several courses taught by Swamy. Seshan, who prided himself on his culinary skills, would cook meals for Swamy and his family. Prime Minister Chandra Shekhar 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 any more, 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 like his minister Bhajan Lal, now thundered: “I eat politicians for breakfast”.

The same man who offered blandishments to journalists at the tax-payers expense, and 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, TN Seshan banged down the phone on the prime minister, 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 coined the phrase: “Seshan versus the Nation”. TN Seshan accused cabinet ministers Sitaram Kesari and Kalpanath Rai of influencing voters, and told prime minister PV Narasimha 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 Narasimha 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 prime minister PV Narasimha Rao realized the damage that an impeachment motion would do to the nation, so he quietly quashed these impeachment efforts in parliament.

PV Narasimha Rao discovered that there was nothing in the law which prevented him from appointing additional election commissioners. So prime minister PV Narasimha Rao appointed MS Gill and GVG Krishnamurthy as additional election commissioners too. A furious Seshan called MS Gill and GVG 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 MS Gill and GVG Krishnamurthy had powers and voting rights equal to Seshan.

Surprisingly, the one politician whom Seshan did not accuse of misdemeanor was J Jayalalithaa, even though she harshly criticized him in public. In fact, her AIADMK cadres roughed up Seshan, and trashed his room. When Seshan did not retaliate even after being roughed up by Jayalalithaa’s followers, he was asked by a journalist: “Is this because you are Tamil Nadu Seshan – your initials TN 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 any 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) lead a spartan, abstemious life. He spent most of his civil service salary on donations to charitable causes, paying the school fees of hundreds of poor children, 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 gracious and hospitable – her father was a university vice chancellor, and she was a scholar and connoisseur of classical music – and I wonder how much more obnoxious TN 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 it all, giving his advice on every topic under the sun to all and sundry. He would keep sermonizing 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.

He was a publicity hound and always sought to be in the headlines. He claimed that he was more popular than Amitabh Bachchan. He thought he would give ‘quotable quotes’ to the media, but he ended up sounding juvenile.

As soon as he became Chief Election Commissioner in 1990, he thundered: “I don’t get a salary of 9000 rupees a month and a status of a supreme court judge for nothing”, inviting sniggers since a salary of 9000 rupees was common in the middle rungs of the corporate sector.

While delivering a memorial lecture for my maternal uncle, he made juvenile and puerile statements: “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, as was his wife. He often said: “We Palakkad Iyers are known for four C traits – great Carnatic musicians, top notch Civil 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.

There were also whispers about TN Seshan having received valuable gifts from Sathya Sai Baba, of whom he was a devotee.

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 PV Narasimha 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.

Seshan invited ridicule when he accused KR Narayanan of fraud, asserting: “In some places he has mentioned his name as KR Narayanan whereas at other times he has mentioned his name as Narayanan KR”.

TN Seshan 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 pathetic attempts to enter politics, abjectly begging for 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, paying for the food and education of hundreds of poor children. In fact, when Jayalakshmi and Seshan were getting married, the astrologers predicted that they would have no children. Seshan had then taken a sacred vow that he and his wife would bring up all needy children as their own.

The nation owes TN Seshan a debt of gratitude for cleaning up the corrupt electoral system. He also did some good 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.

Shri Surendra Singh, an IAS officer of the 1959 batch, who became Cabinet Secretary five years after TN Seshan, recollected:

” TN Seshan ruined or tried to ruin the career of a number of outstanding officers who did not give in to his unreasonable demands.

One of my brushes with him happened when he was Secretary – Environment and Forests, and I was Principal Secretary, Industries, in the state of Uttar Pradesh.

The Environment and Forests ministry had issued an illegal order relating to the Doon Valley. When they did not agree to retract it, the Uttar Pradesh state government filed a petition in the Supreme Court.

TN Seshan sent for me and threatened to ruin my career if the petition was not withdrawn.

We stuck to our guns and won our case in the Supreme Court.  

Luckily for me, TN Seshan was not in a position to do me harm. I am aware of several such instances. “

TN Seshan was very honest in money matters ( in fact he donated most of his salary and pension to bringing up hundreds of poor children ), but he was not a man of conviction. 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”.

Read First Part Here: Man Who Ate Politicians For Breakfast