New Delhi: India’s new Chief Election Commissioner (CEC) Rajiv Kumar, a retired 1984-batch IAS officer from the Jharkhand cadre, is an expert on finance, corporate affairs, public policy and law, according to serving and retired civil servants who have worked with him in the past.
Kumar retired as finance secretary in the Union government in February 2020. In April that year, he was picked by the Union government to head the Public Enterprises Selection Board (PESB) — the body that clears names of government officials for various top posts in public sector undertakings. Then, in August 2020, he was appointed Election Commissioner, filling the vacancy left by Ashok Lavasa, who resigned to join the Asian Development Bank after a tense relationship with the Bharatiya Janata Party-led government at the Centre.
Kumar will assume charge on 15 May, replacing Sushil Chandra, and will oversee upcoming state assembly elections as well as the 2024 Lok Sabha polls as the CEC. Election commissioners serve for a tenure of six years, or up to the age of 65 years, whichever is earlier. So far, Kumar (62) has so far spent nearly two years in the ECI, which effectively means he will be CEC for at least three years.
“In the bureaucracy circles, he (Rajiv Kumar) is seen as a technocrat for his expertise in matters related to finance, corporate affairs, and law. In office, he has always maintained a very low profile. He does not engage with the media and has always avoided conflicts and controversies,” a former finance ministry official, who did not wish to be named, told ThePrint.
The official added that Kumar worked on key aspects of several flagship projects under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, such as the Pradhan Mantri Jan Dhan Yojana and Pradhan Mantri Mudra Yojana.
Kumar, a science and law graduate with post-graduate degrees in public policy and sustainability, worked with the Department of Personnel and Training and the Union Ministry of Tribal Affairs, according to his service records, available in public domain.
In the past, he has also been in charge of departments such as primary education and industries in Bihar (before Jharkhand was carved out as a separate state), served as collector, district development commissioner and sub-divisional magistrate in several districts of Jharkhand.
As finance secretary, Kumar specifically monitored all work on banking, insurance and pension reforms. According to a press note on the Election Commission of India (ECI) website, he initiated a crackdown on shell companies and froze bank accounts of over three lakh such firms during his tenure in the finance ministry, between 2017 and 2020. He also worked on a Rs 2.11 lakh crore plan to recapitalise state-owned banks.
Kumar was also instrumental in streamlining the national pension system that allowed 18 lakh central government employees to choose pension funds that they can invest in, the press note further said.
Some other initiatives under his tenure in the finance ministry include the passing of the Banning of Unregulated Deposit Schemes Act, 2019, a law to ensure protection of depositors while dealing with the menace of illicit deposit-taking schemes such as chit funds, and an amendment in the Banking Regulation Act to strengthen the regulatory powers of the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) over cooperative banks to avoid wrongdoings like in the PMC Bank scam case, the press note said.
“For officers working under him (Kumar), he has always been very accessible, but also very low-profile,” a senior official in the Jharkhand government, who previously worked with Kumar, told ThePrint.
A senior Union government official told ThePrint that Kumar is a fan of Hindustani classical music. “He also has a liking for devotional songs and invests a lot of time on meditation when he is not working. People close to him are aware of that,” this official said.
Another official said that over the last several years, Kumar had gone on multiple adventure treks in Ladakh, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Sikkim and the Western Ghats.
‘Many challenges to face’
A former EC official, who did not wish to be identified, told ThePrint that Kumar “has to face several challenges at this point”.
“These are times when there is evidently some blurring of lines between the Commission in terms of its autonomy and the ruling government in terms of interference in matters under the jurisdiction of the Commission,” the official said.
“These are also times when multi-phased polls and the role of social media has made it difficult for the Commission to implement rules such as silence period before polls and model code — which often raises serious concerns and highlights need for urgent reforms,” he added.
(Edited by Gitanjali Das)