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Why Mr Clean-up is less cynical about India
Shobha Warrier

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January 23, 2007
When I spoke to T N Seshan, the former chief election commissioner, in 1998, he was very cynical about India. Almost a decade later, as we prepare to celebrate the 60th anniversary of India's Independence, I found Seshan, the man credited with cleaning up the Indian election system, optimistic and upbeat. He spoke at length about terrorism, reservations and the quality of India's political system.

In the first part of the interview, we find out why Mr Clean-up is less cynical about India today.

In 1998 when I interviewed you, you said India was at the crossroads, and if it took the right direction, it could be one of the outstanding countries in the world in the next ten years. Almost ten years have passed. Did India take the right path?

I would say if the right path was due east, we are going in the eastern direction. But we are not fully in the eastern direction; we are a little south of east. There are still corrections to be made; there are still changes to be made. In many areas, we have not done what we should have been doing in the last 8 to 10 years.


Like, for example, we lost ten valuable years in making sure that all children get education. Mr (President A P J) Kalam has been speaking about it; the others have been speaking about it. There is nothing more important than all children being in school as is promised by the Constitution. We have not done that.

From a completely different angle, we should have learnt to conduct our business particularly in the assemblies and legislatures in a far more disciplined fashion than we do. Yes, in every country, there is a lot of noise made in the parliaments and assemblies but sometimes business is transacted. I don't know whether we could not transact more business than we are currently doing in the parliament and assemblies.

The progress made in the clearance of arrears in court cases is completely unsatisfactory.

Our inability to settle outstanding social and political issues by discussion and negotiation -- rather than by violence and demonstration -- is unfortunate.

We have not put in place an agency to combat the growing menace of terrorism and Naxalism. Terrorism is a worldwide phenomenon now; Bush is worried, Blair is worried, and even Putin is worried. But we could have put this menace in place.

So why do you still say the path taken by India is the right path?

Because democracy is still alive and kicking. The judiciary is still alive and asserting itself whenever necessary. Our education system has not improved as much as it should have but it is no longer the privilege of the rich. Education is available to many. Where there were 10 or 15 engineering colleges, there are 300 today. Even the poorest servant's child can aspire to go into an engineering college or a medical college if he has the merit.

We have improved tremendously in healthcare. Our hospitals have improved enormously. We can get treatment for the most complicated problem with very little delay.

Ten years ago, did you expect India to grow like this?

No. I hoped it would. Did I expect it? I was not sure about expecting.

In 1998, I thought you were more cynical.

Yes, I was more cynical. The answer is, there is reason to be less cynical today than I was ten years ago.

Who will you give credit to for India taking the right path?

Well, I know people will say it is because of my prejudice. But my basic thesis is that the man who laid the foundation was Rajiv Gandhi. He didn't live to implement what he wanted to.

In his first five years of office, he got mired in unnecessary controversy and got sucked in by all kinds of forces. But it was Rajiv Gandhi who laid the foundations of the economic reforms which were implemented by Narasimha Rao and Manmohan Singh. Rajiv Gandhi had visions of modernity even in 1987, '88 and '89.

Rajiv Gandhi died in 1991, and even in 1998, you were not so optimistic.

That is because there were many reasons to be worried about then, and not all reasons to worry have come to pass. On the other hand, many positive things have happened in the last ten years. Many Indian boys and girls have acquitted themselves remarkably well all over the world. Ten years ago, we didn't expect, or we didn't know, this would happen.

Ten years ago, anybody who had an IIT degree collected his degree and went away to America. Today, they are working all over the place; and they are doing fantastically well.

You told me then that a change in the attitude of the people to the country would take place through either a social revolution or a technological revolution.

Yes. Both are happening now. Everybody knows about the technological revolution.

It has made them more self-confident. The young people of 2006 are far more confident than the young people of 1996.

Do you feel the insecurity young Indians felt ten years ago about many things including employment are no longer there today?

They are less insecure than they were ten years ago. I don't say they are no longer insecure. Even today, thousands of graduates have no jobs but that is less of a worry today than ten years ago. The feeling of insecurity was terrible in those days. Today, it is not that terrible.

Do you feel because of the technological revolution, the attitude of other countries to India also has changed?

Undoubtedly. China has made unbelievable progress, physically. They have built roads, they have built steel factories and they have made enormous progress in all fields. They are growing at 10 per cent per year. But today, it is not as if China is progressing and India is not progressing at all.

When Blair made a speech to the Labour conference in Manchester, he spoke about China and India. Though we have not done as well as we should have in certain sectors like manufacturing, in hardware, etc, there are other areas where we have done extremely well; like in the automobile industry, mobile technology, etc.

Certain industries which were on the verge of collapse like the textile industry have taken a turnaround.

What about a social revolution?

That one third of humanity is treated as second class or third class citizens is no longer valid today. Nobody asks you: Are you a Harijan, are you an Adi Dravida, are you this or that. You are taken at face value. If you can do the job, you can do the job -- whether it is in journalism or IT or any such field.

Among the poorer people, people who were called the Dalits, there was, mistakenly, an aggressive attitude in some cases. If you keep that aside, most people have a healthy social attitude today.

What do you attribute as the reason behind such an attitude? There was not a visible social revolution in India.

The reason most importantly is affluence. The poorest servant has a television set, a fridge, a telephone, a mobile telephone...

So, it is not education that has brought about the change...

To some degree, education has, but availability of jobs, income, technology, etc has brought about the change.

When liberalisation was first introduced in India, experts spoke about the trickle down effect, but till now, the criticism has been that this has not taken place.

It's not as if there is a pipe and suddenly everything can come down, nor is it a solid piece of rod through which nothing comes down. Trickling down does not mean coming down of 100 per cent. It has to percolate through, and percolation has taken place. There is no question about it.

Part II: 'Reservation is a storm in a teacup. It will neither help nor hurt.'

Part III: 'Americans think democracy is like giving a lollipop'

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