“How can I say anything? He is now the Election Commissioner,” quipped a former Union minister when asked about S.Y. Quraishi. Ironically, this minister had hounded out Quraishi as chief of Doordarshan and All India Radio. Today, the same high-profile politician could be seen cooling his heels outside his office in the Election Commissioner (EC). He had been summoned in a disqualification case against his party, the BJP.
When Shahabuddin Yaqoob Quraishi was named India’s Election Commissioner in 2006, he called it poetic justice. Quraishi had gone through rough times. Either the minister did not like him or questioned his functioning. Consequently, the assignments Quraishi enjoyed the most ended abruptly: heading the National AIDS Control Organisation (Naco) or Doordarshan. Others were long tenures in youth affairs, sports or state Wakf boards.
Even those who liked Quraishi failed him. Devi Lal, for instance. Quraishi had served in Haryana when Devi Lal was chief minister. Known as his right-hand man, Quraishi expected a cushy job when Devi Lal was sworn in as deputy prime minister: “But he forgot me when drawing up the list of officers.” Apart from telling the Jat leader that as deputy PM he was entitled to use an Air Force plane, Quraishi saved him from political blunder by having an official order — the sale of the government-owned Janpath Hotel for peanuts — reversed.
As a junior officer, Quraishi routinely took a bus to office. He often passed the sprawling government bungalows but never imagined that he would live in one. When he moved into Delhi’s Akbar Road, he threw it open to his friends.
Till three years ago, Quraishi twiddled his thumbs in the sports ministry. When his name started doing the rounds as Prasar Bharati chief, he was excited. But a midnight call changed it all: “Would you accept being Election Commissioner?” He did not seek time to think. The tide had turned; the nowhere man was back in the reckoning — a constitutional post and a six-year term.
The top brass of the BJP was nervous to see Quraishi as Election Commissioner. During its stint in power, Quraishi had been unceremoniously shunted out from DD to a lackluster job in the steel ministry.
Hell had broken loose when Sushma Swaraj, then Information and Broadcasting Minister, had handpicked him to head DD. Party colleagues were irked with a Muslim as its head. Worse, Quraishi’s journalist wife, Humra, was a BJP basher. Things reached a flashpoint when a documentary on Mrs Indira Gandhi was telecast. Swaraj’s take: “He had worked with me in Haryana and I found him to be an officer with exceptional integrity.”
Quraishi’s successor at Naco, current chief Sujatha Rao, describes him as “a wonderful man… unruffled… someone who would treat kings and beggars alike”. But there, too, he courted controversy of sorts — the reason for his exit from that organisation was that his boss, the health minister, became fed up of seeing Quraishi’s mugshot in newspapers daily.
Nicknamed ‘Motor-mouth’, Quraishi’s subordinates charged him with verbal diarrhoea. As a teacher, he spent five days discussing the battle of Panipat. When his colleagues advised him to finish the course, he quit.
In his childhood, Quraishi tuned guitars and made radios, thanks to the lessons he took at New Delhi’s Bal Bhawan. He sacrificed his interest in singing for the piano, because of the misplaced notion that it was un-Islamic. Years later, he formed his own rock group — the first with a woman performer, Sharon Prabhakar.
Quraishi boasts of a lineage going back to the Prophet. When his father joined St Stephens College in Delhi, the family was boycotted.
The EC’s job is, perhaps, the best thing that happened to Quraishi. It ended the years of trauma at being shuffled around, being a ‘nowhere man’. The downside is that it’s far removed from the vibrancy of some of his earlier assignments: “It is repetitive and regulatory… a typical job which kills the poet in me,” he says with a wave of hand.