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 at a politically crucial juncture, the current job is likely to be Arora’s most challenging assignment in his 38-year-long career as a bureaucrat, but the Rajasthan cadre officer has to his credit some rare successes.
Arora, who retired from the IAS in 2016, is known both, for his quiet decisiveness as well as for his circumspection. His peers still remember him for turning around Indian Airlines when he was its chief managing director between 2002 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 the 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 principal secretary to chief minister Vasundhara Raje from 2005 to 2008.
As a young IAS officer, Arora had district postings in Dholpur, Alwar, Nagaur and Jodhpur. His contemporaries in Rajasthan still remember Arora ably diffusing 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 MA in English from Government College 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 his retirement 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 in 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. In a conversation with AK Bhattacharya of Business Standard, Arora said last year that his goal at Indian Airlines was to increase the market share of the airline he was heading. He took all the steps that were necessary to achieve that goal. Arora said he succeeded in building a first-rate top management team at Indian Airlines that any company would be keen to have.
As Arora prepares himself for his new assignment as India's CEC, he would be required to display his famed circumspection as well as quick decisiveness in large measure.