Family pushed him into civil service
On July 20, S Y Quraishi became the 17th chief election commissioner of India. Sahim Salim takes a closer look at the man in charge of the biggest electoral exercise in the world
He has a plush, bigger office waiting for him on the first floor of Nirvachan Sadan. But newly appointed Chief Election Commissioner Shahabuddin Yaqoob Quraishi prefers sitting in his old second floor cabin.
"Why bother! I have set up my office in a certain way in the time I have spent here," he says.
The 17th CEC assumed office four years after he was first appointed as an Election Commissioner -- the first IAS from Haryana cadre to hold the post.
When talking to him, you cannot help being overwhelmed by his knowledge on subjects varying from politics to modern Persian, Arabic and German languages to health, education, population, drug abuse to civil society action. His expertise on gender and HIV/AIDS is undisputed.
So what caused this product of St Stephens College and a PhD holder in Communications and Social marketing to take up civil service?
"Frankly speaking, I was pushed into this field by my family because I was good at academics. Then I got into the circle and got inspired by the group," he says on the short ride back to his home at 10, Akbar Road.
Image: Chief Election Commissioner Shahabuddin Yaqoob Quraishi
Jamming with NSA and Foreign Secretary
Sixty three-year-old Quraishi, whose daughter-in-law Safia is an RJ with Radio Mirchi, is dexterous with the guitar and is known to pluck some mean strings in his spare time. He started off with the bass guitar and later took on the rhythm guitar while in the Indian Administrative Service academy for his band called 'Garibaldi and his three hairs'.
"Madhukar Gupta from the Home Secretary used to play the drums for us," recalls Quraishi with a mischievous smile.
He still takes out time to jam with the who's who of Indian administration -- National Security Advisor Shiv Shankar Menon and Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao. He is largely inspired by the 1950s British band "The Shadows".
"In fact, I specially went to London to be at the 50th anniversary reunion of Cliff Richard and the Shadows. I even clicked a picture with my music idol, guitarist Hank Marvin," Quraishi says, grinning proudly.
Image: Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao
Political neutrality is EC's hallmark
Quraishi, who assumed office on Friday, has taken reigns from the incumbent Naveen Chawla, who was accused of having an alliance towards the Congress party. The then CEC, N Gopalaswami on January 31, 2009 sent his recommendation regarding Chawla's removal, claiming he was not fit to be in the office because of his alliance to "one party". When speaking of him, however, Quraishi only has nice things to say.
"While he (Chawla) was the CEC, we oversaw many elections. I can say with full confidence that all of those elections were conducted fairly," Quraishi says.
Quraishi believes that political neutrality is the hallmark of the EC. He says that the EC should be completely insulated from political interference.
We may have our alliances to political parties as an individual. But as part of the EC, we suppress such feelings and we ensure biases do not cloud our judgments. When it comes to allegations of our CECs having political alliances, it must be remembered that there are two other Election Commissioners in the EC with equal powers. So if one commissioner has a political alliance, there are the other two to take care of it," Quraishi says.
Image: Former CEC Naveen Chawla
Holding polls in india needs serious hard work
So how difficult really is it to conduct "fair and free elections" in a country like India where over half the states are affected by internal conflicts like Naxalism and religious terrorism?
"To conduct free and fair elections is very difficult. There are law and order problems, militancy, Naxalism, states with border areas; northeast India has its own set of problems -- it is not easy. But with experience, we have managed to overcome all these and conduct elections fairly. The last general elections were the best ever in world history," the 1971-batch officer says.
There is some serious hard work when it comes to conducting elections in India's topographically difficult areas.
"There is a polling station in Arunachal Pradesh, which takes EC officials three days and three nights on foot to reach. There are polling stations in forests, in the sea and snow-capped areas. There is a polling station in Gir Forest, where there is only one registered voter. But all the same, it is a polling station and we go there. Even at that station, which has just one vote, we are open till evening because later we don't want a claim of a disputed vote," Quraishi says.
Experienced civil servant who keeps a low profile
Speaking about money power politics, Quraishi does not attempt to deny it and says that it is a serious concern for the EC.
The last few years have seen a serious increase in the money politics area and Quraishi says the EC is constantly thriving to combat it.
Quraishi, who largely maintains a low profile, has over 35 years experience in Indian administration and is the first Muslim chief election commissioner of India.
Quraishi will have a little more than two years as the CEC. Prior to being named CEC, he held the post of secretary, Sports and Youth Affairs in the central ministry in addition to several key positions in the government.
Quraishi received a PhD for his thesis on 'Role of Communication and Social Marketing in Development of Women and Children.'