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India's scourge of money, muscle and ministers

Tim McGirk in New Delhi on the election chief who 'eats politicians for breakfast'
Indian politicians, so the joke goes, fear only God and TN Seshan - and not necessarily in that order. His detractors say he's a bearish megalomanic who once allegedly ordered his bodyguards to open fire on a car that was blocking his way. But his defenders insist that as chief election commissioner, he has made Indian elections fairer and has terrorised politicians and bureaucrats into behaving slightly better.

The world's biggest democracy began voting yesterday in the first round of parliamentary elections which, thanks to Mr Seshan, have so far been free of the epic-scale bullying, bribery and flim-flam which has marred past polls. But in doing so, many complain that he has taken the fun out of the Indian election circus.

Before, politicians would chopper in to dusty villages, showering the poor and often illiterate farmers with music, rupees and promises of a better life. But now the dazzle is gone; Mr Seshan has restricted a candidate's spending to around pounds 8,500. This means the government-loaned helicopter is out, and the candidate must tour the 700 or so villages in his constituency by bumping along cratered roads in a decrepit car. Only the Prime Minister, Narasimha Rao, was allowed to use an official aircraft on his campaign tours. The commissioner also banned loudspeakers and graffiti. Most importantly, he has stopped politicians from making speeches which might stir up hatred between Hindus and Muslims and within Hinduism's hierarchy of castes.

Industrialists like Mr Seshan too. It used to be, at election time, that parties would demand suitcases full of money to subsidise their campaigns. It has been calculated that the 1991 general elections probably cost industry over pounds 50m in dubious campaign contributions. Those businessmen who agreed to pay up, and most did, were promised lucrative government contracts that often never materialised. Nowadays, campaigning politicians leave the industrialists alone. "What is wrong with Indian politics are the three 'Ms'," Mr Seshan recently stated. "Money, muscle-power and ministers."

Although some vote-rigging and intimidation was expected yesterday and in the 2 May and 7 May rounds of elections, Mr Seshan's commandments seem to have worked. Aside from a few sporadic shootings, the election campaign so far has been relatively free of violence and corruption. It has not been easy; many candidates, especially in the northern states of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, have criminal records and are backed by private armies of thugs. To reduce foul play, Mr Seshan deployed over 300,000 security forces and over a million election officers to monitor yesterday's polls. The election is being held in three phases so that they can be moved around the country.

Until Mr Seshan came along, chief election commissioners were obedient bureaucrats who kow-towed to whatever party ruled, rarely wielding the enormous power given to them by the constitution. At first Mr Seshan, 63, also seemed to fit the mould - a Tamil from the priestly Brahmin caste, he rose up the Indian civil service pyramid by being a brilliant organiser and making his ministers look good. But not long after he took over the election chief's job in 1990, he turned around and said, "I eat politicians for breakfast." He proceeded to do just that, hungrily, earning the nickname "The Alsatian".

One of his first run-ins was with the Prime Minister. He claims that an exasperated Mr Rao once summoned him and said, "Seshan, what can I give you?" He dangled two plums before the irascible election commissioner: to become a state governor or India's ambassador to Washington. Mr Seshan refused; he is reckoned to be incorruptible. The only gifts he accepts are idols of Ganesh, the elephant-headed Hindu god of auspicious beginnings. "Maybe it's because I resemble Ganesh myself," joked Mr Seshan, who has long ears and a rotund belly.

Mr Rao may have failed to buy him off, but he did neutralise him. Mr Seshan's powers were reined in last year when two other election commissioners were also appointed. "Everywhere I go, people praise me," Mr Seshan said, "But I know the truth. If the electoral system was minus 100. I have made it only minus 25."

Twice Mr Seshan has been threatened with impeachment. Left-wing parties tried to force him out in 1991, after he ordered that a Bihar by-election should be repeated because of "booth-capturing" - an Indian phenomenon in which armed gangs take over a polling station and either steal or destroy the ballot boxes. Up until then, booth-capturing had been taken for granted as unavoidable.

The following year he ran afoul of the West Bengal and Andhra Pradesh state governments for cancelling local elections there, also because of suspected fraud. Once again the parties unsuccessfully demanded his sacking. Mr Seshan also risked Mr Rao's wrath by threatening to stop elections in all states until identity cards were issued to voters.

None the less, his Herculean efforts to clean up Indian politics have made Mr Seshan a hero of the Indian middle classes, many of whom think he ought to be running the country. Prakash Mishra, a cashier at a Varanasi hotel, summed it up: "If Seshan were made dictator of India, I'd support him."

The election commissioner has expressed a desire to campaign for India's largely ceremonial post of president, but for the next two weeks, as an electorate of 590 million voters goes to the polls, the great juggernaut of Indian bureaucracy will be under Mr Seshan's command.