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

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