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He lives by the give-nothing-take-nothing principle

Our Delhi Bureau | February 04, 2009

Chief Election Commissioner Needamangalam Gopalaswami is a stickler. For rules. For details. For discipline. For principles. For values. For him, there is only one way of doing things: The right way.

He is known to make copious notes about how every hour of his day passes. "He jots down details in a tiny diary. Even if you speak to him on the phone for a few minutes, your name and details of the conversation go into that tiny diary," revealed a friend who has known the CEC for 20 years.

So, the moment he decided to recommend Navin Chawla's [Images] removal from the post of election commissioner, Gopalaswami retreated into a one-of-its-kind library. "It is more like a room where all these diaries, which he has kept labeled in serial order over a period of time, are strewn all over the place," the friend said.

Gopalaswami turned to these diaries for factual accuracy. People close to the CEC that his keen eye for detail and habit of keeping meticulous notes led him to believe that Chawla was leaking information during his toilet breaks.

"That he drafted a 12-point recommendation running into more than 90 pages is a fact everyone knows. What many don't know is that he went over it again and again and again. He revised the draft nine times before forwarding it to President Pratibha Patil [Images]," the friend said.

What might appear extraordinary or eccentric to the casual observer is but second nature for Gopalaswami, who is fondly referred to as Gopu by some colleagues.

An Indian Administrative Service officer from the 1966 batch, his first posting was in Surat [Images]. Gopalaswami, a former student of St Stephen's College, had stood second in the mandatory Gujarati test for officers from outside Gujarat.

He worked to ensure the best possible civic infrastructure for the industrial town. He became so popular that local political leaders said he could easily win an election if he ever chose to contest.

During his stint in Gujarat, senior leaders like Chimanbhai Patel and Hitendra Desai are known to have diverted their adversaries to Gopalaswami, knowing there was no better person at snubbing unwanted elements. When a local leader approached him with a bribe of Rs 5,000 early in his tenure, Gopalaswami first intimated the chief minister and then called the police.

This kind of adherence to values has made him the person that he is today, people close to Gopalaswami say.

"If you go to his residence, he won't even offer you a glass of water. He may even eat in front of you without offering you anything," a close friend said. This attitude is more because of a give-nothing-take-nothing principle than anything else, insiders say.

And friends say he could swallow what he dished out. A teetotaler with simple and clean eating habits, he is never known to have eaten a single meal outside his home.

"He had to attend so many dinner meetings. In the two decades or so that I have known him, I have never seen him eat outside," a friend said, adding, "He will entertain you in the drawing room and may talk to you for two hours, but there won't be a single offer for any refreshments or even water."

Gopalaswami follows his set of rules at the workplace too. He used to leave office at 9 pm. "His brief to his office was that he wouldn't sign any papers between 8.30 pm and 9 pm. 'If a guy comes running to your car as you are leaving and wants something signed in a hurry, that is where corruption begins' was his motto," an observer said.

Sources in the bureaucracy say that not just Gopalaswami, but two more officers from the 1966 IAS batch are cast in the same mould.

"They are a terror for other officers due to their upright nature: Gopalaswami, then Union Home Secretary P Shankar and Chief Vigilance Officer and Cabinet Secretary B K Chaturvedi. They were called the teen murtis," the source added.

"The first two are often clubbed together and dubbed as Gopu and Shanku -- that is also how they address each other. They have forged a very close relationship over the years and are still very close," he said.

Apart from such professionalism, another thing that Gopalaswami wears on his sleeve is his faith. "Though he sports the Iyengar sweecharnam (tilak), he leans more on the spiritual side than the religious side. He is a very secular person," said the friend about the staunch god-fearing Vaishnavaite.

"When Vaishnavite spiritual leaders visit Delhi [Images], temple authorities here ask Gopalaswami to deliver the welcome address. He recites the Tiruppavai during the month of Margazhi. He has also visited all the divyadesams -- the 108 holy pilgrimage sites for Vaishnavites," the source added.

The CEC also sports a keen interest in astrology and is remarkably tech-savvy, informs the friend.

When the Election Commission started the process of delimitations of constituencies, the CEC suggested that Google maps be used for the arduous exercise.

He also played a very crucial role in designing the software that will be employed in the 2011 census.

A lesser known facet of Gopalaswami is the role he has played in preserving the Vedas.

"Some parts of the ancient Hindu scriptures, like the sama Veda, are only orally taught. They have been passed on through the Gurukul system and through Shruti lessons. Goplaswami, who wanted to preserve such things for posterity, was instrumental in securing a Rs 5 crore (Rs 50 million) grant from UNESCO," a source said.

What ultimately defines the CEC's current predicament -- more than all the above -- are these two incidents.

"He and The Hindu's Editor-in-Chief N Ram met each other when the latter invited him to lecture the newspaper's staff in Chennai. From that time, the two became close and Ram used to speak to him on a daily basis. On the day he forwarded the recommendation to the President, Ram got wind of it and called Gopalaswami and asked him if what he had heard was true. Since he is not the kind of man who would lie about anything, Gopalaswami merely said yes, and Ram went ahead with his story. Otherwise, this would have remained an internal matter," a source close to Gopalaswami said.

The other incident only highlights how the stickler also has a clearly demarcated sense of personal equations and professionals responsibilities. "When the controversy surrounding Chawla started brewing, at the behest of Ram, Chawla paid a surprise visit to Gopalaswami at his residence on Diwali, carrying sweets. The two spoke for a long time and Chawla shared some personal problems with Gopalaswami. As he was leaving, Chawla even made an elaborate gesture of respect towards Gopalaswami and sought his blessings. Gopalaswami wished him well," the source said.

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