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The quintessential consensus builder | The Financial Express

To some, new chief election commissioner (CEC) Rajiv Kumar, who would oversee the crucial 2024 Lok Sabha polls, is a man for all seasons. To others, the 1984-batch IAS officer of the Jharkhand cadre is the right man for the right job. Beneath these lofty assertions by former colleagues, lies a reticent man who usually avoids limelight but lends his ear to all, knows how to drum up consensus, crunches numbers himself and can implement a goal even under the most challenging circumstances. new chief election commissioner,

All these qualities will be put to test, as Kumar assumes charge as the CEC on May 15, replacing Sushil Chandra. He assumes the crucial office at a time when the Election Commission of India is increasingly being criticised by the Opposition for allegedly being biased in favour of the ruling BJP. It has also become difficult for the Commission to ensure that its model code of conduct is strictly implemented in an era of hyperactive social media, opinion polls and heated TV debates.

An expert on finance, corporate governance and public policy, Kumar retired as the finance secretary in February 2020. He got to head the Public Enterprises Selection Board (PESB) in April 2020 before being appointed election commissioner in August that year.

“One of Kumar’s biggest qualities is that he can spot talent very easily and put them to productive use,” a senior officer, who had worked with him for a number of years, told FE. “However, his best quality probably is that no matter how severe is the pressure from the top, he doesn’t pass it on to his juniors to release his own. This enables the juniors to work to the best of their capacity,” added the officer.

When Prime Minister Narendra Modi wanted to hold an unusual meeting with government officials belonging to various central services, including the junior ones, in 2016-17, catching the usually seniority-conscious bureaucrats by surprise, Kumar had the unenviable job of organising those meetings in 20-30 groups within a tight schedule. As the establishment officer and additional secretary at department of personnel and training, Kumar was also focused on ensuring a 360-degree scrutiny of officers in crucial positions, added another officer.

But Kumar’s toughest challenges awaited him at the department of financial services (DFS). When he took over as its secretary in September 2017, the banking system was facing one of its worst crises ever. Gross bad loan ratio of commercial banks hit as high as 11.2% in FY18, with provision coverage at barely 50%.

With Arun Jaitley at the helm of the finance ministry, Kumar prepared a plan involving an unprecedented capital infusion of `2.1 trillion into state-run banks through FY19. But he tied the infusion to strict conditions on the recipient banks’ financial performance, governance and risk-detection mechanism. “He told the PSBs in no uncertain term that there was no free lunch,” said a senior officer who worked with Kumar at the DFS.

However, by the time Kumar became the finance secretary in late July 2019, some of the stressed state-run banks had started to recover while some others were showing signs of recovery. During his time, the government decided to merge 10 PSBs to make four larger entities with larger and stronger balance sheets.

A lover of Hindustani classical music, Kumar also spends time on meditation when he is not working. However, his love for trekking is more well-known. Kumar had gone on multiple adventure treks in Ladakh, Himachal Pradesh and the Western Ghats and would often reminisce about those trips with select journalists. As he is about to begin a new chapter of his life, he would require to go off the beaten track to further bolster the credibility of the Election Commission.

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