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Sunil Arora: The aviation ‘expert’ who will oversee India’s next general election

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India’s new CEC Sunil Arora ‘knows how to get stuff done’. But he will also be the least experienced poll chief to manage Lok Sabha elections.

New Delhi: Just months before the Lok Sabha elections in 2019, the reins of the Election Commission have been handed over to retired IAS officer Sunil Arora who will continue to be in the saddle for at least two more years.

A 1980-batch Rajasthan-cadre officer, Arora was appointed an election commissioner in September 2017 — a year after he retired as secretary of the information and broadcasting ministry in April 2016. He will formally take charge from outgoing CEC O.P. Rawat on 2 December.

Through his 38-year-long career as a bureaucrat in key positions at the Centre as well as in Rajasthan government, Arora acquired the reputation of a “can-do” officer.

“Throughout his tenure, he was known to be rule-bound, focused and principled…He knew how to get stuff done, and shake things up if needed to get it done,” said a retired IAS officer who has worked with Arora during his tenure as the I&B secretary.

“More importantly, he was known to never breach the norms of propriety,” the former IAS officer added.

With a career as a bureaucrat that spans over almost four decades, Arora has dabbled in areas of aviation, economy and sports among others. For his peers, with his versatile experience across domains, Arora illustrates the ability of IAS officers to seamlessly move from one sphere to another.

Also read: Election Commission is exploring expense limits for candidates based on constituency

A versatile career

A protégé of former Rajasthan chief minister Bhairon Singh Shekhawat, Arora served in key positions in the Chief Minister’s Office between 1993 and 1998. He also worked under current Chief Minister Vasundhara Raje and is known to be still close to her. He served as Raje’s principal secretary from 2005 to 2008.

“Obviously a person who is appointed a principal secretary is close to the chief minister…That goes without saying,” said another Rajasthan-cadre IAS officer who did not want to be named.

“But throughout his tenure, even as her principal secretary, he was known to be a very fine officer,” the officer added.

For those who have observed his career closely, Arora’s expertise has always been in the aviation sector. “He totally turned around Indian Airlines as its CMD…That was his most remarkable contribution,” said his batch-mate and former IAS officer Shankar Agarwal.

“Under his tenure, the financial health of the airlines improved dramatically…And he did so, despite all the problems in the airlines,” he said.

While Arora did seek to turn around Indian Airlines as its CMD from 2002 to 2005, his stint ended on a somewhat rocky note.

Arora — the ‘whistleblower’

In May 2005, days before his tenure as CMD ended, Arora wrote a scathing 14-page letter to then cabinet secretary B.K. Chaturvedi alleging a scam in the civil aviation ministry. The national carrier was being arm-twisted into taking decision that led to the financial crisis in the company, he alleged.

In the same letter, Arora told the cabinet secretary that he feared for his life and his family’s safety given that he had sought to blow the lid off the several irregularities in aircraft purchases at Air India.

He went on to cite the murder of whistleblower Satyendra Dubey in 2003, who too had blown the lid off scams related to a highways project, and was murdered the day he turned 30 after his identity was leaked.

The episode gave Arora — otherwise known for his meticulous and circumspect attitude as an officer — the reputation of a whistleblower as well.

Arora then went back to his state for nine years, after which he returned to the Central government as skill development and, subsequently, I&B secretary.

During his last stint as I&B secretary that lasted barely eight months, Arora is credited with handling the crisis at the Pune-based Film and Television Institute of India (FTII) in 2016, when the students and the institute were locked in a year-long stand-off.

In a lesser-known attempt, Arora had sought to establish a regulatory body on the lines of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in the US that would regulate communications by radio, television, wire, satellite and cable across the country. Since he did so at the fag-end of his tenure, the move did not see the light of day after he retired.

Also read: The United States should hire India’s Election Commission to conduct their polls

Tenure at Election Commission

With an experience of overseeing only 11 assembly elections as an election commissioner, including the ongoing polls in five states, some former ECs had flagged the concern that Arora will be the least experienced CEC to oversee Lok Sabha elections.

However, as he sets out to be the man behind the general elections next year, Arora remains undaunted by the criticism.

Speaking to ThePrint earlier Arora had said, the government had not laid down any guidelines to dictate the number of elections that qualified EC officials to oversee a national election. “As IAS officers, we routinely join new jobs and try our best to learn,” he said.

With general elections just months away, and the reputation of the Election Commission at an all-time low — with allegations of the poll body being biased towards the ruling BJP rampant — Arora has quite a challenging task ahead of him.

Known to be a team-builder among fellow bureaucrats and a suave negotiator with politicians, as he takes up what may arguably be the most significant assignment of his career, Arora will be required to make use of all his experience and insight acquired over the past four decades.

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  1. Rightly or wrongly, some apprehensions have emerged over EVMs being vulnerable to tampering. That issue should be firmly laid to rest. Beyond that, there is a lot of institutional integrity to the ECI, so a good team player should have no difficulty serving as CEC and conducting the next general election successfully.

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