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Election Umpire Calls Them as He Sees Them : Shyness isn't a problem for India's T. N. Seshan, who is proud of driving 'the fear of God' into law-breakers.

January 25, 1994|JOHN-THOR DAHLBURG | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NEW DELHI — India's mandarin-like civil servants? No better than "polished call girls."

His own baldness? "God made some heads beautiful. The others he covered with hair."

It's virtually certain that if you live outside India, you've never heard of T. N. Seshan. But if you reside here, you simply can't ignore his outspoken, often outrageous views. For three years, the bull-necked career bureaucrat with the gleaming toffee-hued dome has served as India's chief election commissioner.

His biggest accomplishment? "I have driven the fear of God into people who broke the system," he says proudly.

In the world's single largest democracy--so huge that a nationwide election mobilizes 550 million voters and more than 350 registered parties, generates 20,000 tons of paper ballots and requires 700,000 polling booths and an army of 3 million to 4.5 million poll workers--Seshan is the self-defined "umpire."

"The Indian election system is one of the greatest marvels of the world, after the Taj Mahal," he has mused. So how's the umpire doing?

If controversy is the measure, he's doing well indeed. For in the past year, though Seshan commands a full-time staff of only 192, he arguably became the most important, and certainly the most exasperating and hotly debated, figure in Indian public life.

The New Delhi building that houses the Election Commission is now guarded by a squad of soldiers armed with automatics, and its bulky 60-year-old master is chauffeured around in a limo armored to stop a 5.6-millimeter bullet fired from a yard away.

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To understand the danger, it's important to realize that intimidating violence, ballot-box stuffing and official manipulation of results used to be as much a part of elections in India as the ritual garland of bright yellow marigolds for the victor.

But that was before the "Seshan factor' kicked in.

Two months ago, 143 million people across northern India were called to the polls to choose their local assemblies. The Times of India approvingly observed that for the first time in years, "the electoral process in five major states was conducted without officially inspired rigging and malpractices."

In Uttar Pradesh, a state particularly notorious for election shenanigans and bullying, there were only two murders. In 1991, there had been more than 190.

What did Seshan do? "In U. P., I had 40,000 central policemen all over the place," he confides. That virtually ended the usual intimidation of voters, and as a result a coalition came to power that favors the disadvantaged.

Although the job he holds is mandated by the constitution, chief election commissioners before Seshan were little more than glorified errand boys for the government, which manipulated the electoral process to further its grip on power. Seshan refuses to do what people working for Prime Minister P. V. Narasimha Rao order.

"If I am a subordinate of government, God save this country's elections," he says.

Subordinate is a word few would apply to Seshan, although he is a 36-year veteran of India's prestigious civil service--the same bunch he now claims is "98% corrupt" and likens to prostitutes. He held a succession of plum government jobs and even served nine months as Cabinet secretary, or India's No. 1 bureaucrat.

Critics carp that if Seshan had complaints about public administration, he certainly kept quiet for a self-servingly long time. Bhuvnesh Chaturvedi, a member of Parliament for the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, says Seshan's headline-grabbing comments are those of an "abnormal man."

For almost a year, Seshan and India's government have been waging a dispute so acrimonious that the commissioner is boycotting all official functions. In a nutshell, the government rejects Seshan's contention that he has the constitutional authority to order its staff to run and keep order at elections and that he can punish bureaucrats who won't comply. "That is something I was not willing to stomach," Seshan says.

He struck back last August by postponing all elections. The Supreme Court then gave him the interim powers he sought.

Taking a leaf from Franklin D. Roosevelt's notebook, Rao's government moved to dilute Seshan's authority by appointing two additional commissioners. But Seshan, who as commission chief enjoys special status conferred by the constitution, is uncowed.

"The only way you can send me home is by going through the process of impeachment," he says.

He now is going after 20 members of the Rajya Sabha, the upper house of Parliament, for allegedly falsifying their places of residence so they could get elected from states they don't live in. If those allegations are true, Seshan wants charges brought.

It's hardly a move that will earn him brownie points with India's already alienated government--one of the probe targets is Finance Minister Manmohan Singh.

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