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Standing up to be counted

Navin Chawla nearly left administrative service to take up social work full-time. It was Mother Teresa who changed the new Chief Election Commissioner’s mind, writes Pankaj Vohra.

india Updated: Mar 06, 2009, 23:37 IST
Pankaj Vohra
Pankaj Vohra
Hindustan Times

Controversy is nothing new for the Chief Election Commissioner-designate Navin Chawla. The BJP has accused him of being close to the Congress, a view shared by the outgoing CEC N. Gopalaswamy. But the BJP’s allergy towards him goes back to the time when he was the secretary to the then Lt. Governor, Krishan Chand. Many Jana Sangh leaders and student activists like Arun Jaitley, then the Delhi University Student’s Union president, were arrested in 1975, during the Emergency. Chawla was thought to have had a hand in these detentions by his critics.

Much water has flown down the Yamuna since the Emergency and Chawla evolved into a good administrator with a vision. Ironically, his elevation to the position of Additional Secretary as well as Secretary in the Government of India took place when the NDA was in power at the Centre. He was appointed Secretary in the Union Public Service Commission, and later as Secretary, Consumer Affairs.

In May 2004, after the UPA took over, Chawla was appointed as Secretary, Information and Broadcasting. A year later, he became Election Commissioner.

Beneath that tough exterior of a seasoned bureaucrat there lies a soft-hearted person. His association with Mother Teresa was a turning point. In an association that lasted 23 years — and continues to this day — Chawla has pursued with a focus his desire to serve the under-privileged. He has always managed to find time in his busy schedule to work for leprosy-afflicted persons. His special bond can be partially explained by the fact that he himself had been partially affected by polio as a child.

According to close family friends, Chawla has never pursued power and is happier working for those who need help. In 1997, he wanted to quit the administrative service and work for charity. But it was Mother Teresa who made him change his mind.

Chawla is a firm believer in destiny. At the same time, however, he believes strongly in the spirit to succeed in one’s chosen path. After his schooling at Sanawar and college at St Stephen’s, Delhi, where he made many friends, he went off to University of London. He was at the London School of Economics when he first appeared for his civil service examinations. “His tutor wanted him to stay on and teach, but he insisted on taking the exam. The result was very disheartening and he failed to clear one paper in English,” an old friend recalls. A determined Chawla came back to Delhi and, in his second chance, made it to the IAS in 1969. There was no looking back.

As a young Additional District Magistrate of the south district of Delhi, he was entrusted the task of presiding over the marriage of Sanjay Gandhi to Maneka Anand.

Chawla’s father was a leading dentist and his mother Delhi’s top gynaecologist. They wanted him to pursue medicine but he had other plans. He is essentially a family man who likes to spend time with his wife, Rupika — whom he knew while in college — and his two daughters.

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