Seshan’s posthumous autobiography is essential reading on electoral reforms

Memoirs of the late administrator, known for his exceptional public service, leave the reader asking for more

GN Bureau | June 27, 2023

#bureaucracy   #IAS   #Election Commission of India   #electoral reforms   #T.N. Seshan   #Rajiv Gandhi   #Environment ministry  

Through the Broken Glass: An Autobiography
By T.N. Seshan
Rupa, 368 pages, Rs 795

Tirunellai Narayana Iyer Seshan was a one-of-a-kind administrator. Nicknamed ‘Alsatian’ for his no-nonsense approach to what is arguably the most sensitive job in the nation, that of the Chief Election Commissioner (CEC), he is widely recogised as the man who raised the bar of integrity and excellence at the Election Commission of India (ECI) by several notches.

Before making headlines as CEC during 1991-1996 – quite a turbulent period in India politics, he had a nearly three-decade service as administrator in the IAS cadre, culminating with the post of cabinet secretary. When prime minister Rajiv Gandhi created a new ministry dedicated to environment, he had been the secretary there too. In recognition of his public service he was honoured with the Ramon Magsaysay award in 1996.

The sixth child of a lawyer father and a homemaker mother, Seshan was born in 1932 in Palghat, Kerala. As a student, he was brilliant at academics and went on to become an Indian Administrative Services (IAS) officer like his elder brother.

Seshan, at the pinnacle of his career, gained unrivalled popularity in India. Over six years as the CEC, he became a household name. Audiences and organizations across the nation were eager to hear him. Fan clubs were formed in his honour and to facilitate his work. His work found admirers across the seven seas, and post his retirement, he was even invited to the US president’s annual prayer event in early 1997.

His service at the Election Commission was tumultuous, but it was single-minded in the pursuit of free and fair elections. He was relentless in innovatively implementing codes through pre-existing laws and in bringing in new reforms, and, finally retiring in December 1996. It is in this last phase of six years that he made a huge and positive impact on the nation as a whole.

Before his death in 2019, he was at work giving finishing touches to this autobiography. Seshan penned two books based on his rich experience, ‘The Degeneration of India’ and ‘A Heart full of Burden’ (both in 1995).

Written with research assistance from Nixon Fernando, ‘Through the Broken Glass’ has a couple of chapters about his life before and after the service, and some also to his pre-ECI service. But, as he states in the Introduction, the trigger for writing this book was the suggestion of many friends who wanted him to “pen down my memories, especially my years spent at working as the CEC”.
Before Seshan came on the scene, the Election Commission was increasingly functioning as an appendage of the government. Over and above that, there was evidence that malpractice and lawlessness in elections were reaching alarming levels. If that trend were to continue then further down that track lay the ignominy of a ‘banana republic’ and the danger of Balkanisation.

Fearless to the core, in his autobiography, Through the Broken Glass, Seshan brings to light his years of struggles to usher in a new era of electoral reforms in India. Not the one to mince words and Seshan’s devil-may-care attitude and righteous self-awareness took even the Union governments by surprise. Written by a person who never cowered to the high and mighty, the book gives a no-holds-barred account of the man who revolutionised the electoral process.

Thought-provoking and inspiring to the core, ‘Through the Broken Glass’ is a testament to the grit and determination of the man who wagered a lone struggle to bring about a colossal change in the Indian electoral system.

This book was written when the author was well into his eighties. Setting the record straight about the numerous controversies during his tenure at the ECI might be his top priority. But there have been other controversies too, on which we would have liked to hear his final views.

For example, Seshan spends a few pages here talking about his post-retirement plans for public service and possible plunge in politics. But he refrains from recollecting two high-profile elections he fought – the 1997 presidential elections when he contested against the Congress-backed candidate, KR Narayanan and the 1999 general elections when he contested (as a Congress candidate) against BJP’s LK Advani from the prestigious Gandhinagar constituency.

His pioneering work at the environment ministry – he notes Rajiv Gandhi’s visionary concern about climate change – too could have been dealt in more detail. His opposition to the large dams, Tehri and Narmada (Sardar Sarovar project) in particular, is well known (not touched upon here). But then, his years at the nascent environment ministry should have merited a separate book.

‘Through the Broken Glass’, however, will remain indispensable reading on the working of the Election Commission and the all too important theme of electoral reforms.



Other News

Elections 2024: 1,351 candidates in fray for Phase 3

As many as 1,351 candidates from 12 states /UTs are contesting elections in Phase 3 of Lok Sabha Elections 2024. The number includes eight contesting candidates for the adjourned poll in 29-Betul (ST) PC of Madhya Pradesh. Additionally, one candidate from Surat PC in Gujarat has been elected unopp

2023-24 net direct tax collections exceed budget estimates by 7.40%

The provisional figures of direct tax collections for the financial year 2023-24 show that net collections are at Rs. 19.58 lakh crore, 17.70% more than Rs. 16.64 lakh crore in 2022-23. The Budget Estimates (BE) for Direct Tax revenue in the Union Budget for FY 2023-24 were fixed at Rs. 18.

‘World’s biggest festival of democracy’ begins

The much-awaited General Elections of 2024, billed as the world’s biggest festival of democracy, began on Friday with Phase 1 of polling in 102 Parliamentary Constituencies (the highest among all seven phases) in 21 States/ UTs and 92 Assembly Constituencies in the State Assembly Elections in Arunach

A sustainability warrior’s heartfelt stories of life’s fleeting moments

Fit In, Stand Out, Walk: Stories from a Pushed Away Hill By Shailini Sheth Amin Notion Press, Rs 399

What EU’s AI Act means for the world

The recent European Union (EU) policy on artificial intelligence (AI) will be a game-changer and likely to become the de-facto standard not only for the conduct of businesses but also for the way consumers think about AI tools. Governments across the globe have been grappling with the rapid rise of AI tool

Indian Railways celebrates 171 years of its pioneering journey

The Indian Railways is celebrating 171 glorious years of its existence. Going back in time, the first train in India (and Asia) ran between Mumbai and Thane on April 16, 1853. It was flagged off from Boribunder (where CSMT stands today). As the years passed, the Great Indian Peninsula Railway which ran the

Visionary Talk: Amitabh Gupta, Pune Police Commissioner with Kailashnath Adhikari, MD, Governance Now


Current Issue


Facebook Twitter Google Plus Linkedin Subscribe Newsletter