If there is a vote for the most down to earth and self effacing, soft spoken but tough bureaucrat in Tamil Nadu, Rajesh Lakhoni would be a front runner. The 1992 batch IAS officer is in the hot seat, overseeing arguably the most politically volatile electoral battle in the State. Camera shy and someone who prefers to keep a low profile, this 46 year old Chief Electoral Officer cannot help being in the news everyday, as he is, after all, the eyes, ears and mouth of the Election Commission of India. Like a Virat Kohli takes to a crunch situation in a T 20 match, Lakhoni got off the mark in his new innings with a boundary. With more than a crore new voters in this election, he roped in celebrities from Chennai like international squash champion Dipika Pallikal and her cricketer husband Dinesh Karthik, along with ace Indian spinner R.Ashwin and the actor siblings Surya and Karthi to star in videos in a bid to achieve its goal of 100% voter turnout. Wheel chairs and ramps are being organised and efforts are on to even get about thirteen thousand prisoners under preventive detention and who have voting rights to exercise their franchise.
Out of the 5.8 crore registered voters in Tamil Nadu, almost a third are in the 18 to 29 age group. “For the first time we have used the social media for not just propagation of messages but also for registering complaints and grievance redressal”, Lakhoni notes with pride. Insiders reveal that with the complaint mechanism automated, messages are sent to flying squads which in turn activate the Income Tax officials. The system, they claim, is independent of officers, obviating room for bias. The seizure of cash in this election has been unprecedented. “We have seized 65 crore across Tamil Nadu. And there is more than a fortnight to go for the polling day. In the last assembly election, the seizure was about 35 crore.” By the looks of it, this election may see more than twice the seizure compared to 2011.
Ask any citizen who has interacted with the bureaucracy in Tamil Nadu and all of them will vouch for one quality that Lakhoni is known for. Accessibility. This was the hallmark of his postings as Collector in Theni, Kanyakumari & Peraambalur\Ariyalur and particularly his stint as the Corporation Commissioner of Chennai. That was when the plan to expand the jurisdiction of the civic body to 426 sq km from the earlier 174 sq km was concieved, not to speak of the Marina Beach Beautification Drive and the construction of nine flyovers in the city. Wherever he is posted, Lakhoni draws from his Information Technology and Communications background to introduce IT tools. If it was the launch of the 1913 helpline and SMS monitoring of grievances in the Corporation or 45674567 in Metro Water, it was an app for Audio Guides during his short tenure as Managing Director of Tamil Nadu Tourism Development Corporation. A simple low cost screening centre under the aegis of the Chennai Corporation won Lakhoni the Prime Minister’s Award. As the Managing Director of Metro Water, Lakhoni ensured that there was some sequence and method in the digging madness as well as an online linkage between the Corporation and Metro Water to boost tax collection. Streamlining systems with Old Age Pension disbursement as the Joint Commissioner of Revenue Administration, automating distribution benefits as Secretary, Agriculture, overhauling Lift Licensing as well as collating data to sniff out electricity theft as the Secretary, Energy are just some of his achievements.
Lakhoni’s ambition to join the Civil Services was kindled by the sight of Collectors during his college years. “I used to be in awe of not their power but the fact that they were instruments of government action. I too wanted to become a Change Agent.” After his graduation in Electronics Engineering (GATE) from the National Institute of Technology, Raipur, he got a top rank in the Graduate Aptitude Test in Engineering and effortlessly landed in IIT Delhi where he completed M Tech in Radar Engineering. The top rank in GATE coupled with peer pressure made him write the Civil Services Examination. And it was bull’s eye in the very first attempt.
Married to a pediatrician Dr.Dolly, the Lakhonis have two school going children – Suyash and Vaishnavi. For a workaholic, an old craze for movies and astronomy have largely remained memories. The latest flicks may just be sneaked in on his forty seventh birthday, which falls exactly a week after the big counting day in Tamil Nadu. And the completion of his maiden innings at the Election Commission crease. Only the stars may be different.
(Sanjay Pinto is a Lawyer, Columnist, Author, Former Resident Editor – NDTV 24×7 and a Public Speaking Mentor)