Sachin Tendulkar and Rekha, recently nominated to the Rajya Sabha, vote in the vice-presidential election on Tuesday. Picture by Ramakant Kushwaha
Students at the Syedna Tahir Saifuddin High School, better known as Minto Circle in Aligarh, had a simple way of settling any dispute over cricket. They would turn to a wiry teenager who knew everything about the game — from obscure rules to the Indian team’s grand exploits — for help.
Mohammad Hamid Ansari, indeed, was a veritable encyclopaedia of cricket. “He lived and breathed cricket,” says Shamim Ahmad, a classmate and former vice-chancellor of the Aligarh Muslim University (AMU). “We thought he’d become a cricketer or a commentator.”
The cricket lover — who also represented AMU as a wicket-keeper and batsman — knows well to keep the wickets. After today’s election that Ansari swept, he will be the only Indian after S. Radhakrishnan to get two consecutive terms as Vice-President of India.
The feat will strike a chord in many parts of the country. For the mild-mannered 75-year-old former diplomat and vice-chancellor of AMU has made a great many friends along the way from the field to the high office.
The friends missed him at a landmark reunion last year when Ansari’s batch of 1961 in the civil services celebrated its 50th anniversary in Mussoorie. Ansari sent a message expressing his inability to attend the gathering for security reasons — and just how much he was going to miss it.
He wasn’t missing in spirit, though. Quite a few of the old memories revolved around the young man with goatee — though considerably darker in colour those days.
Almost everyone, for instance, remembered a trip to Srinagar. Seeing his roommate Tejinder Khanna (now the Lt governor of Delhi) take a cold shower, Ansari thought he’d try it out too. He entered the bathroom with Ghalib on his lips and came out shrieking. The water, the half-clad Ansari told his surprised friends, was freezing. He had merely touched it with his fingertips — and rushed out within seconds.
“One had to be there to see his expression,” laughs K. Gajender Singh, friend and former diplomat. “Usually he did and said everything with a straight face. He’s not lost that to this day.”
After completing high school at Minto Circle, Ansari enrolled at St Xavier’s College in Calcutta for Class XI and XII with logic, history and Urdu as his subjects. He passed with a first division in 1955, says college vice-principal Dr Dominic Savio.
Although the Ansaris were originally from Ghazipur in Uttar Pradesh, Hamid Ansari’s father, a traditional medicine practitioner, had settled in Calcutta’s Jhowtalla, off Park Circus.
From Calcutta, Ansari went back to AMU. “The environment in the 1950s was of acquiring knowledge with a feeling that we could change the world. And Hamid Ansari believed that,” says his old friend Syed Zillur Rahman, the president of the Ibn Sina Academy of Medieval Medicine and Sciences, Aligarh.
Ansari was all of 24 when he joined the Indian Foreign Service in 1961. One of the few Muslim officers in the service, he was groomed for West Asia. “He completely understood the importance of India to countries in the region and vice versa. He wanted to build on the relationships and strengthen them further,” says G.V. Gupta, a friend from their civil service days.
When India felt that Iran was getting uncomfortably close to Pakistan in the early 1990s with insurgency in Kashmir being stoked from across the border, the job of winning the confidence of the Iranians was entrusted to Ansari. He was successful in putting across India’s point of view.
Ansari, Rahman says, was spotted as a professional with promise by Atal Bihari Vajpayee when he was foreign minister in the late seventies and Ansari was in the United Arab Emirates. “He recognised the talent in Ansarisaab,” Rahman says.
It’s to Ansari’s credit that while he managed to impress Vajpayee of the Bharatiya Janata Party, he struck a chord with the BJP’s arch rivals, the Left, too. It was the Left which proposed his name as a vice-presidential candidate in 2007.
“With the Congress choosing its candidate for the President’s post, we wanted a non-Congress candidate as Vice-President. Ansari fit the bill as he was perceived to be impartial and independent-minded,” says Nilotpal Basu, former CPM MP.
Ansari’s main contest was with National Democratic Alliance nominee Najma Heptullah. He came up trumps with 455 votes — almost 80 votes more than the 377 votes that he needed to win — while she polled 222.
When the Left zeroed in on him, Ansari was the chairman of the National Commission for Minorities (NCM). “He was a complete team man,” says Michael P. Pinto, the vice-chairman of the NCM under Ansari. Pinto says it was Ansari who conceived the idea of holding commission meetings outside Delhi and entrusting specific responsibilities to members, which helped in better co-ordination.
“The reports that came out of the commission then were clear without ambiguities and governments were compelled to take notice of them,” Pinto adds.
In the Rajya Sabha, too, Ansari made his mark. “He is a stickler for constitutional rules and he always does what is right,” stresses Rahman Khan, deputy chairman, Rajya Sabha. “He is one of the few Rajya Sabha chairmen to hold meetings almost every morning during a session.”
But realpolitik, Khan adds, often left Ansari frustrated. There were occasions when political leaders agreed to a certain course of action before him – but did the opposite on the floor of the House. “As a politician, I could understand that. But for somebody who believes in rules, he was disappointed quite a few times,” Khan says.
One controversy that clouded Ansari’s stint as the chairman of the Upper House was the debate last December on the Lokpal bill when he adjourned the House before midnight. “We believe that he colluded with the government against the Lokpal bill, and we can never forget that,” says a Rajya Sabha member of the BJP.
There was a time when Ansari’s supporters were hoping that he’d become the President. “But Ansari is a happy-go-lucky guy when it comes to things that are not in his control,” reasons S.N. Mathur, the chief co-ordinator of the 1961 batch. “Entrust him with a job, and he will do it, that’s it. He has always been like that.”