Friday, January 18, 2013

The good CAG and the bad CAG

J Gopikrishnan
[The Pioneer Op Ed article Dec 12, 2012]

On December 3, Comptroller and Auditor-General Vinod Rai and his colleagues must have had a hearty laugh watching television channels flashing news of Union Minister for Information and Broadcasting Manish Tewari’s live Press conference at the All India Congress Committee’s office. Mr Tewari, a frequent CAG baiter, was ‘revealing’ to the media a ‘scam’ related to Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi. The Minister was talking at length and posing serious questions to Mr Modi on the benefits allegedly given to certain companies, and the role of a foreigner in the gas exploration contract of a State public sector undertaking. He was citing a magazine report which in turn was based on the CAG’s findings.

Several illegalities in the gas exploration contract had been then found by the CAG, and these were tabled in its report in the Gujarat Assembly on April 2012. Though the magazine gave credit to the CAG in its recent report, Mr Tewari refrained from doing so. He instead praised the magazine for the exposé on Mr Modi’s “corruption”. In fact, even the questions that Mr Tewari asked the Gujarat Chief Minister in the Press conference were a direct lift from the CAG report.

Ironically, Mr Tewari banked on the CAG’s findings against the Modi Government’s gas exploration contract. Till this Press conference, the Congress and its Ministers since the past two years had been mercilessly attacking CAG and its chief, Mr Rai, for the findings in the 2G Spectrum scam report.

For these politicians, the CAG report is gospel truth when it suits their politics and when it does not, they violate all norms of decorum to attack the CAG in general and its head in particular.

This ‘my CAG versus your CAG’ syndrome is the bane of Indian politics. When the CAG report is against them, politicians immediately start raising questions: Can the CAG question policy? Next will be the turn of the spin doctors of the party. The so-called brigade will initiate Goebbelsian methods by questioning the auditing style and ‘unilateral’ move of the CAG, and its method of calculation of presumptive loss. The last, of course, is the contribution of the dirty tricks department.

We recently witnessed the dirty trick played by the UPA regime when it dug up a retired auditor to trash the very report which he had prepared. Given the downgrading of Indian politics and the magnitude of slush money involved in the scams unearthed by the CAG, we may see more retired Government personnel coming out in the future. The theatrics of retired auditor RP Singh are hidden from no one. He was present at the Press conference when the CAG report on 2G Spectrum scam was unveiled two years ago, proudly explaining the nitty-gritty of the report on the massive scam. He is the same person who presented the report before the parliamentarians of the Public Accounts Committee, after taking oath. His numerous U-turns now have thoroughly undermined his credibility.

The CAG’s critics ignore the powers, the duties and the responsibilities of this premier constitutional body of the country. CAG auditors do not arrive at their conclusions unilaterally. There are several pre-audit and post-audit conferences and interactions between Ministries and Government Departments concerned and the CAG team. Several questions need to be addressed and answered satisfactorily before preparing the draft report itself. The CAG’s office scrupulously seeks explanations more than once from the persons concerned, before indicting them. This prestigious body needs nobody’s consent in deciding on what should be audited. It is simply its prerogative to decide on what to audit, when to audit and how to audit. Those powers are derived from the Constitution. It is, therefore, highly amusing to read newspaper headlines of this kind: “Reliance agrees for auditing”.

The 2G scam report is unique. It is the very first report where the CAG found the role of corporates or bribe-givers in influencing policy-makers while dealing with the Government and in the allotment of natural resources. The CAG’s subsequent reports on Coalgate, Delhi Airport and mega power projects indicted and exposed the ‘who’s who’ of India’s corporate sector.

Apart from the politicians and the Government, the CAG has thus added corporates to its list of opponents. With the involvement of the corporate sector in many shady deals, CAG-bashing has gained added impetus of late.

In normal practice, a CAG report broadly has three parts. First, the report will speak about the policy and norms in practice and the history of that policy. Second, the report will expose the violations and the illegalities and, if needed, indict the persons concerned. Finally, in its suggestions/observations, the CAG may highlight the possible loss or presumptive loss to the public exchequer due to the illegalities. The presumptive loss is derived through certain statistical measures and it is the CAG’s prerogative to do so.

For more than five years, Parliament has not debated any CAG report. Normally, the CAG report tabled in Parliament goes to the Public Accounts Committee for a review. Some non-important CAG reports may not go to the PAC and it is the PAC’s prerogative to take a decision on this. The CAG report then returns to Parliament with the PAC’s recommendations for a debate. But the Congress has used its majority to scuttle the PAC report on the 2G Spectrum scam with the help of the Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party. This is because the PAC has questioned the role of Union Finance Minister P Chidambaram and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh himself in the scam, while the CAG had limited its indictment to only former Union Minister for Telecommunications A Raja. Using political leverage to influence probes and swing deals portents ill for democracy and this country.

The CAG is considered a friend, philosopher and guide of the PAC. The CAG and its officials concerned with the report are part and parcel of PAC meetings. Despite knowledge of these conventions and practices, a brouhaha on the relations between the two bodies is created frequently.

It is the Government’s moral duty to hold an immediate debate on the important CAG reports, as soon as these reports are tabled. It is also the Opposition’s moral obligation to demand a debate. But today, because of the involvement of influential people in and outside the Government, none of the people’s representatives in Parliament wants debates. Instead of a structured debate on the CAG report in Parliament and the State Assemblies, political parties prefer mudslinging. Structured debates will force the Government at the Centre to respond and be accountable. Also, the bribe-givers from the corporate sector will be exposed.

Incidentally, what were the Congress MLAs in Gujarat doing when the CAG placed the report in April 2012, on the irregularities in gas exploration project? What was the PAC in Gujarat headed by a Congress MLA doing on this CAG report all these months?