The EC’s cards

As the split between Chief Election Commissioner N. Gopalaswami and Election Commissioner Navin Chawla continues to dominate headlines...

Published: February 8, 2009 10:09:29 pm

As the split between Chief Election Commissioner N. Gopalaswami and Election Commissioner Navin Chawla continues to dominate headlines,The Sunday Express profiles the three men on the panel By Seema Chishti and Suman K. Jha

The chief

After delivering a talk on the Jammu and Kashmir elections in New Delhi last week,Chief Election Commissioner N. Gopalaswami threw the floor open for questions. One young questioner wanted to know if the Election Commission had helped Narendra Modi win another term in Gujarat. A perplexed Gopalaswami was hardly prepared for the question. “We are not responsible for who is elected and who is not. This is the choice of the electorate. The Election Commission is responsible for the conduct of free and fair elections,ma’am,” he said. The young woman replied: “But these choices are always constructed.”

The Election Commission of India has been facing insinuations like this ever since the split in the panel went public. Gopalaswami’s letter to the President,recommending Navin Chawla’s removal as Election Commissioner last month,was only another chapter in what has come to be known as the Gopalaswami-Chawla row in the Nirvachan Sadan,the EC office.

An unfazed Gopalaswami is,however,spending the last few weeks of his career speaking about electoral reforms,a cause dear to his heart. In Delhi,he spoke about the role of money power (“imagine bundles of currency notes stuffed in an ambulance for a by-election”) while in Mumbai,he spoke about the absence of the ‘none of the above’ option in Electronic Voting Machines (“those who want to come to the voting booth and abstain as a mark of protest,run the risk of being identified in the present system”).

As a municipal commissioner in Surat in the 1970s,Gopalaswami devised an innovative way to put an end to corruption in the city municipality by reworking the land usage patterns that got the city additional revenue. It was during that stint that he famously got a youth leader,who had come to him with a bribe,arrested.

An IAS officer of the Gujarat cadre,Gopalaswami,who majored in chemistry,joined government service in 1966 and has worked with the National Human Rights Commission. It was during his term as Home Secretary that he interacted closely with then Home Minister L.K. Advani,a reason why the Congress accuses him of being close to the BJP leadership.

Those who have worked with him,however,vouch for his leadership skills. For example,when the Karnataka chief electoral officer vowed to complete the electoral roll revision exercise in just 20 days last year,Gopalswami told him that he owed him a “personal debt”. Another chief electoral officer recently poured his heart out in front of the CEC after he had been asked to be “flexible” in the run-up to an election. The CEC assured him that he had his complete backing. Known for his spartan tastes,he didn’t insist on a bigger house even when he was entitled to one after his elevation as the CEC.

His trademark tilak and interest in astrology invited the charge that “he had come to epitomise certain Hindutva symbols”. This was also what set off rumours that he would be offered a Rajya Sabha ticket after he relinquishes office on April 20. In his letter to the President,Gopalaswami,however,asserted that “Election Commissioners should not join any political party for some years after their retirement”.

After his retirement,Gopalaswami says he wants to work for Vedic education and Sanskrit.

The man in the middle

Shahabuddin Yaqoob Quraishi’s is the crucial ‘third vote’ in an Election Commission where most decisions are split. Quraishi,the third Election Commissioner and the youngest,is the one who has been caught bang in the middle of a crossfire between Chief Election Commissioner N. Gopalaswami and EC member Navin Chawla. So far,Quraishi has chosen to act by the book.

For Quraishi,being seen as ‘neutral’ has never meant backing off from an argument. He acts with a nuanced sense of what is politically acceptable across the board. There are times he is known to have backed Gopalaswami (when both of them didn’t want last year’s Karnataka elections to be delayed) and others when he went with Chawla (both of them wanted the Kashmir elections to be held on time; Gopalaswami wanted polls delayed but he came around).

An amiable and multi-faceted officer,Quraishi is an IAS officer in the old mould. A 1971 officer of the Haryana cadre,Quraishi will be with the EC the longest—till 2011. Ask those who have been with the EC for years and they will tell you how watching this Commission come to a decision is like watching democracy at work—full of contradictions but fascinating nonetheless. In the undercurrent of tension between Gopalaswami and Chawla,Quraishi is known to have held his own—picking an argument with either,or even both.

A day in his office,watching the people who visit him,can be mind-boggling. Before this controversy pushed all the ECs into a tight corner,Quraishi had time for everyone—from “musicians” who wanted to “cut CDs” to well-wishers from the days he headed Doordarshan. He believed that a good administrator must be available to hear people out.

A doctorate in Communications and a historian by training,Quraishi graduated from Delhi’s St Stephen’s College. Quraishi has also authored several books and papers,including an interesting paper on Islam and Family Planning.

Quraishi was formerly Secretary in the Ministry of Youth and Sports Affairs and later went on to head the National Aids Control Organisation. He used his communication skills as well as his Doordarshan contacts to make the National Aids Control Organisation more rooted and high profile.

Quraishi is an enthusiastic musician—he can be seen working the synthesiser or guitar with ease. He has even designed his own guitar. He often hosts informal get-togethers on his sun-soaked lawns,where he makes fellow bureaucrats sing to his tunes—he is said to swear by Foreign Secretary Shiv Shankar Menon’s musical skills.

Quraishi is the father of a lawyer-daughter and photographer-son. The house allotted to him in Lutyen’s Delhi used to be the late Rajesh Pilot’s home. Quraishi has retained Pilot Senior’s touch—especially on the lawns—but has lent an elegant simplicity to his home.

Quraishi loves vegetarian food and enjoys his walks. He is as disciplined and meticulous about his time at work as he is with his power naps. Quraishi will need all of those skills as he gets into top gear at work. The next two months will test his skills as an EC,a conciliator,an administrator,and perhaps also as a musician as he tries to make sense of the falsettos within Nirvachan Sadan.


The 1945-born Navin Chawla is possibly the best-connected bureaucrats in town and now,these ‘connections’ may be coming back to haunt him.

But Chawla has weathered bigger storms before—and come out unfazed. An alumnus of Lawrence School,Sanawar,St Stephen’s and LSE (he even did a year at Oxford),Chawla will,in all probability,now be the next Chief Election Commissioner. This,despite the storm kicked up by the BJP petition and despite Chief Election Commissioner N. Gopalaswami writing to the President recommending his removal on grounds of being “partisan”.

Chawla,a career diplomat,has served in various capacities in the bureaucracy,including as Secretary,Information and Broadcasting,in 2005,a year before he was to have retired. However,his stint as secretary to the Lt Governor of Delhi,during the Emergency (1975-77),was the most controversial—till the present row came up. The BJP says the Justice J.C. Shah Commission,which was set up to probe the events of that period,has not had very good things to say about Chawla’s ‘role’ in the Emergency.

Since then,it has been hard for Chawla to shrug off allegations of being far too close to the Congress. Some others in the bureaucracy allege that Chawla’s proximity to UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi has insulated him from all kinds of attacks from the Opposition.

There are more allegations. Two years ago,the BJP alleged that a Trust run by Chawla’s wife Rupika Chawla had received a portion of the MPLADS (MP Local Area Development Scheme) of some Congress MPs. However,those sympathetic to Chawla say the opposite,saying his closeness to Sonia Gandhi has made him vulnerable to the Opposition’s barbs.

In this latest controversy,while the majority of Constitutional experts have attacked Gopalaswami,Chawla’s critics say that none has actually backed Chawla. The controversy,they say,has died down because Gopalaswami has done the ‘wrong’ thing,and not because Chawla is the ‘right’ choice as the next CEC.

Chawla is an authorised biographer of Mother Teresa. Besides,he has written another book on the Mother and one on the rehabilitation of leprosy patients.

If Chawla goes on to become the CEC,he will be in office for another year,during which he will have to battle it out all the way. The whispers are that the Opposition will hit back with court cases—a case has already been registered about land acquired in the name of a trust in Jaipur,ostensibly by Chawla,that has been challenged. The BJP,of course,denies any connection with the petitioner.

It’s not as if Chawla has not tried to mend fences with the BJP or CEC Gopalaswami. Chawla watchers say once he sensed a controversy,he put his famed networking skills to test. But his critics say he was seen as too close to the Congress to have been able to bridge the gap.

Even after Gopalaswami’s term,Chawla will be kept busy—besides finalising electoral rolls,fending off barbs,attacks and court cases.

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