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Time to ‘Seshan’ the EC

 | June 19, 2012

In India, one election commissioner refused to compromise on his principles. Perhaps his counterparts in Malaysia can learn from him.

COMMENT

The Malaysian Election Commission has an outstanding reputation for discharging its duties without fear or favour, unparalleled professionalism and independence.

While the EC and the government would agree with the above statement, a great number of Malaysians however would feel revolted. And that is both unfortunate and disheartening.

In the democratic sphere, the EC is an institution of paramount importance as it is entrusted with the noble task of safeguarding the citizens’ fundamental right to free and fair elections.

The shadow of aspersion must never be cast on its neutrality for that in turn would raise doubts on the legitimacy of an elected government and its leaders.

The commission’s office-bearers must possess immaculate and impeccable credentials, and the slightest dereliction of duties must not be tolerated.

In Malaysia, the EC is often accused of colluding with the ruling coalition, turning a blind eye to the electoral abuses and even sanctioning these violations to ensure the perpetuation of the status
quo.

Its commissioners, critics claim, abetted in the rape of democracy by serving the interests of their political masters and not the public.

Similar to other key institutions and agencies in this country, the EC has a notorious reputation which the likes of Jack the Ripper would be envious of.

Four elements for good elections

Across the ocean, in the world’s largest democracy, one man showed the rest of the world how an Election Commission and its chief commissioner should operate.

Perhaps, our election commissioners could learn valuable lessons from his experience. This would not be a difficult task since there is an abundance of literature regarding his exploits on the Internet.

TN Seshan, India’s ninth election commissioner, was a man who refused to compromise on his principles, which often placed him on the warpath with politicians. But he never flinched.

He had once commented that “good elections require four elements: an election law that is fully tuned to provide free and fair elections; an election commission which is truly autonomous and fearless; administrative procedures that ensure even the smallest man and woman can exercise their franchise freely and without fear; and an electorate which is fully aware of its rights and responsibilities”.

During the initial period after his appointment, Seshan started cleaning up the commission’s image.

On his first day at work, Seshan, despite being a Brahmin and a religious man, had instructed his staff to remove the photos of Hindu deities on the walls of the office to project a more secular image.

Following this, much to the chagrin of his staff, he banned long lunch breaks and reading in the library during office hours.

During his tenure, Seshan is said to have reviewed more than 40,000 cases of alleged false election returns and disqualified 14,000 potential candidates.

In 1993, Seshan took on the central government when the home minister disagreed with his order to deploy security forces in Tamil Nadu when violence threatened to mar the state election.

When the home minister refused to execute Seshan’s order, the latter announced that no elections would be held in India until the government recognised the power of the Election Commission.

The government was forced to turn to the Supreme Court. But before the case was heard, Seshan revoked his order. However, his defiance had won the admiration of the people.

In an attempt to curb rampant voter impersonation, Seshan had urged the government to issue photo identification cards to all legal voters. The government argued that it was unnecessary and expensive.

Seshan then proclaimed that no elections would be held after Jan 1, 1995 and several elections were postponed, forcing the government to once again scale the court steps.

While the court ruled that elections cannot be postponed due to this issue as voting was an inherent right of the citizen, the government however was pressured to issue the cards.

To check the misuse of unaccounted funds during elections, Seshan introduced Election Inspection Observers comprising senior officers from the national tax bureau.

The observers were assigned to check poll expenditure in each constituency on a daily basis and their presence minimised the use of government funds to buy votes.

Taking it one step further, Seshan implemented Section 77 of the Representation of the People Act, making it mandatory for candidates to keep accurate accounts of their expenditure.

Among other requirements, he also made it compulsory for candidates to file their accounts accompanied by an affidavit of oath, which would make them liable to prosecution if false information pertaining to the accounts was provided.

His next step was to set different campaign spending limits for both state assembly and parliamentary seats, and when the government tried to increase the limits to a more “realistic level”, Seshan warned that violations would not be tolerated.

During the 1993 national election, Seshan personally kept watch on electoral expenses and his officers were assigned to monitor each state. After the election, 1,488 candidates from the Lower House were disqualified for three years when they failed to furnish their expense accounts.

Implementing the Code of Conduct

Seshan aslo ruffled feathers when he implemented the dos and don’ts contained in India’s Model Code of Conduct, which, among others, forbade:

  • Using official vehicles, personnel, and machinery for electioneering.
  • Advertisements at the government’s expense showcasing achievements of the party in power.
  • Offering financial inducements to voters.
  • Criticising any aspect of the private life of candidates (or party leaders) not connected with their public activities.
  • Using places of worship for election propaganda.
  • Displaying posters, flags, symbols, or other propaganda materials near election booths on polling day.

When detractors retorted that the code had no legal authority, Seshan responded that such sanction was not required for one not to tell lies.

He said no one could raise an objection if the government did not announce grants to gain votes from the electorate, did not allow the use of government travellers’ bungalows by their own supporters and did not use government aircraft and transport for electioneering purposes.

His remark that the “high and mighty” were not exempted from this code put him at loggerheads with several prominent politicians. He also angered the Indian Administrative Service when he described its officers as “polished call girls” for prostituting their positions.

Seshan was also dead against sectarian campaigning, and issued a five-page order expressing concern over candidates attempting to win votes on sentiments of caste, creed, race and language.

Integrity and fearlessness

In an interview with a news agency this year, Seshan, who retired in 1996, said: “You will not find even one single wrong rupee in my account. Money was not wrongly spent, be it public or personal. I lived with the principle of integrity, absolutely fearless.”

He also said that when he assumed the position of election commissioner, he was in the dark about his duties.

“I assumed the office when I didn’t know the rules and how the Election Commission operates. I had never conducted an election. I went with two principles: zero delay and zero deficiency,” he said.

On being credited as the person who reformed the electoral process, Seshan remarked: “It was not that I introduced a new reform in the system. In fact, I didn’t even add one comma, semicolon or a full stop to the Act. Whatever was said in the Act, I implemented.”

One cannot help but wonder and hope that in the distant future, the Internet would house similar literature about a Malaysian election commissioner.

Knock, knock! Abdul Aziz Mohd Yusof and Wan Ahmad Wan Omar, are you listening?


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