Sunil Arora: The CEC-designate is a man of all reasons

Sunil Arora | Illustration: Ajay Mohanty
Sunil Arora, 62, will replace OP Rawat as India’s new Chief Election Commissioner (CEC) on December 2. Arora, a 1980 batch Indian Administrative Service (IAS) officer, will be in the saddle for two years, supervising the 2019 Lok Sabha polls and Assembly polls in at least 10 states.

As India’s CEC is at a politically crucial juncture, the current job is likely to be Arora’s most challenging assignment in his 38-year career as a bureaucrat, but the Rajasthan cadre officer has a wider range of career experience to bank upon.

Arora, who retired from the IAS in 2016, is known for his quiet decisiveness and circumspection. His peers still remember him for turning around Indian Airlines when he was its chief managing director between 2000 and 2005. He also served as a joint secretary in the ministry of civil aviation from 1999 to 2002, where he handled the hijacking of Indian Airlines’ IC 814 to Kandahar.

During his stint in Rajasthan, Arora was a trusted officer of former chief minister Bhairon Singh Shekhawat between 1993 and 1998, and chief minister Vasundhara Raje from 2005 to 2008. He served as the principal staff officer to both of them.

As a young IAS officer, Arora was collector and district magistrate for Dholpur, Alwar, Nagaur and Jodhpur from 1985 to 1993. His contemporaries in Rajasthan still remember Arora ably defusing a communally charged situation at Nagaur in late 1980s. More recently in 2016, as secretary of the information and broadcasting ministry, Arora doused the fire of students’ unrest at the Pune-based Film and Television Institute of India.

Arora hails from Punjab. According to The Tribune newspaper, his father Naseeb Arora worked in the Indian Railways as an accounts officer. His mother Pushpa Lata worked at DAV College, Hoshiarpur. Arora and his siblings studied in Hoshiarpur. He did an MA in English from Panjab University in 1976, and taught at a college before he joined the IAS. One of his brothers is a diplomat, and another a Haryana cadre IAS officer.

Arora also served in the Planning Commission, Ministry of Finance, Ministry of Overseas Indian Affairs, merged now with the Ministry of External Affairs and the Ministry of Skill Development. After he retired in April 2016, Arora was advisor to Prasar Bharati and then director general and chief executive officer of the Indian Institute of Corporate Affairs, and subsequently appointed to the Election Commission on September 1, 2017.

One of Arora’s abiding regrets is the Centre’s decision to merge Indian Airlines with Air India, just when he had succeeded in making it a profit earning enterprise, which at the time competed ably with private low-cost carriers. He told Business Standard last year that his goal as the Indian Airlines chief was to increase the market share of the airline.

Arora said he took all the steps that were necessary to achieve that goal and succeeded in building a first-rate top management team at Indian Airlines that any company would be keen to have. During his tenure, Indian Airlines registered a net profit in 2003-04 and 2004-05. Overall revenues increased from Rs 37 billion to Rs 51 billion with the same number of aircraft. It was also around this period that the Centre deployed CISF at airports, and Arora played a key role in implementing it on the ground.

As secretary in the information and broadcasting ministry, when it was still with Finance Minister Arun Jaitley as his additional portfolio, Arora counts his successes to be curation, restoration and preservation of feature and non-features films through digitisation. Arora’s stint at the ministry saw Shyam Benegal committee’s review of the film certification framework, digitisation of cable space and an “extensive review” of the Indian Information Service cadre.

Prior to that, Arora served as secretary in then newly formed Ministry of Skill Development and Entrepreneurship, with Bihar Lok Sabha member Rajiv Pratap Rudy as his boss. With it being a project close to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s heart, Rudy and Arora came up with the ‘national policy for skill development and entrepreneurship’ and established the National Skill Development Mission within eight months.

The PM launched the two initiatives in July 2015, as also the Kaushal Vikas Yojana. However, the newly formed ministry failed to live up to its initial promise. While Arora shifted to information and broadcasting, the PM eventually dropped Rudy from the council of ministers in the cabinet reshuffle of September 2017, and now little is heard of the ministry’s work.

The jolt to Arora’s career came in 2009 when his name featured in the so-called Radia tapes. At the time, Arora was the additional chief secretary in Rajasthan government and chairman of the Rajasthan State Industrial and Investment Corporation (RIICO). However, having served in the Ministry of Civil Aviation, Arora was close to leaders of some of the non-Congress UPA constituents.

Arora has been on the board of various corporate entities, such as Barmer Mining and Lignite Company, Mahindra SEZ and Rajasthan State Mines and Minerals Limited. He oversaw the development of the Japanese Zone in Neemrana, states his profile on the Election Commission website.

As Arora prepares himself for his new assignment as India's CEC, he would be required to display his famed circumspection as well as decisiveness in large measure. 

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