As an informed citizen, I have felt utterly frustrated and cynical about our ‘lawmakers’ on two occasions. The first of these was when I was part of a delegation that went to meet the then Union Minister of Home, Shivraj Patil in June 2006, to protest the decision to raise the height of the controversial Sardar Sarovar Dam from 110 metres to 121.92 metres.

The second occasion was when none other than the erstwhile Prime Minister of India took barbs at the Comptroller and Auditor General of India (CAG) by stating that the latter was exceeding its mandate. Manmohan Singh went on record to state, “Well, I think the CAG also leaks. It is not the function of the CAG. It has never been in the past that the CAG has held press conferences as the present CAG has done. It is not right for the CAG to go into issues which are not the concern of the CAG, it is not the CAG’s business to comment on policy issues. I think they should limit themselves to the role defined in the constitution. We are now a permissive society, I think if a media can get away with murder, so can the CAG.”

Any informed citizen or an editor listening to these statements could have reminded the PM of a legal and constitutional fact or two, citing case laws from the Tamil Nadu High Court that found no fault with the then Accountant General of Tamil Nadu holding a press conference.

I wondered why, even as this constitutionally established Supreme Audit Institute of India was coming under attack from the ruling party spokespersons day in and day out, Vinod Rai, the CAG of India between 2008 and 2013, didn’t speak to media, but just went about doing his constitutionally mandated task silently and diligently. He merely wrote a letter to the Prime Minister, the details of which are dicussed later.

Didn’t he feel hurt? Didn’t his subordinate officers in the CAG of India feel that it was time to make their position clear?

Former CAG Vinod Rai. Pic: Press Information Bureau

Incidentally, the rather careless statement by Manmohan Singh on June 2011 was not the first and last attack on the CAG of India; neither was it the first time that an anguished Rai had to write a letter to the PM clarifying his stance.

On 13 September 2010, Veerappa Moily, speaking at the Fifth Annual Convention of the Central Information Commission, alleged that “the way the institution of audit has functioned has not exactly fulfilled what the Indian constitution had in mind while creating the institution”.

The CAG tried to explain the position of his office in a letter written to the prime minister on 17 September 2010. The latter, instead of sending any written reply, opted to speak to Rai through media. About a month later, on 26October, 2010 The Indian Express published a news story titled, ‘Moily to PM: Didn’t Mean to Belittle CAG.’

Many months later today, even as  the memoirs of Vinod Rai, titled Not Just An Accountant, have been released, there has been no let-up of the media trial that this leader of the Supreme Audit Institution of India has to face.

In a blog on The Economic Times website, T K Arun makes an attempt to paint Rai as a Luddite conservative. And I am still left wondering if there is any ground for such media trial unleashed by ardent apologists of the ‘worship economic liberalisation; let people and the public exchequer be damned’ school of thinking?

Vinod Rai as CAG

On the fateful date of December 18, 2007, when Rai, a Kerala cadre IAS officer, then working as Secretary, Financial Services, Ministry of Finance was appointed as the CAG of India, very few would have expected that his tenure would turn out to be the one wherein the constitutional watchdog guarded its turf with utmost professionalism. In fact, amongst researchers of public policy and public audit, there existed a feeling that getting someone who is outside the Indian Accounts and Audit Department, as CAG of India might not be such an advisable thing to do.

Era Sezhiyan, a former Member of Parliament had concluded in his article, Checks and Balances: Choosing the Next CAG, “The term of the present CAG expires on January 06, 2008; and there is already speculation about filling up the post with an IAS officer. The parliamentary system of a functioning democracy can be saved only by appointing a competent and experienced IAAS (Indian Audit & accounts Service) officer to the post of CAG.”

There was a petition filed in the Supreme Court on 27 November, asking for stipulation for appointment on this constitutional post.

Six years later, when Rai’s tenure came to an end, things had come full circle. An IAS officer had turned out to be the silent crusader, providing the CAG auditors a leadership that gave us many scathing audit reports. At the same time, he had introduced certain far more relevant progressive changes within the Indian Accounts and Audit Department, which he narrates in the third chapter of his book.

The memoirs

In Not Just An Accountant, Vinod Rai spends little time telling us about his early days; the first chapter –From Dimapur to Delhi – covers his career as a civil servant from 1972 till 2006. He then quickly moves to the tales that must be told to inculcate in young minds a concern about public finance and public accountability.

  

Title: Not Just an Accountant; Author: Vinod Rai; Publisher: Rupa Publications, New Delhi; Price: Rs 500 Pages: 267

The book then weaves in narratives on how the CAG of India had gone about carrying out the five most talked-about audits. Throughout his narration, Rai never gives an impression that his trials and tribulations left him frustrated. For the first time, readers are given access to details on how our parliamentarians conducted themselves during the Public Accounts Committee and Joint Parliamentary Committee discussions.

An anguished tone is clearly visible in Chapter Six wherein he doesn’t mince his words. Much of the correspondence and documents that Rai puts in appendices are already in the public domain today. So is the letter that Rai wrote, with help from his colleague Alok, to Manmohan Singh on 5 July 2011.

Although written in response to the uncalled for attack on the constitutionally established Supreme Audit Institute of India, this letter was written with a reasoning tone and a very mild-mannered effort to educate the erstwhile prime minister on the role of public audit in a parliamentary democracy, even in post-liberalisation times. The letter was sent to the PMO along with an enclosure, namely Thematic History of the CAG of India (1990-2007) written by former Deputy CAG, Vijay Kumar.

The least that was expected of Singh, after having erred so miserably on constitutional and legal facts, was a reply, if not an apology or repentance. Rai tells us in his book that he had asked for an appointment with Singh at short notice to discuss the issues in question and he got an appointment for 7 July 2011. What happened at that meeting?

In Rai’s own words, “The prime minister asked me as I entered his room, ‘I hope you do not want a reply to your letter?’ I replied that I could hardly demand any such thing of the prime minister. As usual he was very gracious and let me explain each one of the assertions that I had made in my letter.

History repeated itself in August 2013 when Montek Singh Ahluwalia, former deputy chairman of the Planning Commission alleged that “untrained staff [is] auditing CAG reports”. Ahluwalia didn’t stop merely at the allegations, but went on to comment that “The CAG’s primary work is to evaluate on financial parameters, but when it starts doing performance evaluation, it gets problematic.”

One could, of course, have reminded Ahluwalia that it was the CAG’s performance audit of the Accelerated Irrigation Benefit Programme (tabled in parliament in 2004) that served to reveal how, despite the Planning Commission not approving the revised cost estimates of Sardar Sarovar Project, the Deputy Chairman’s ‘programme evaluation’ office allowed the project to secure a lion’s share of the AIBP funds with impunity.

But despite coming up against such opposition time and again, Rai pens the last chapter in his memoirs as a statement of hope. He suggests that despite recent examples of crony capitalism drowning the transparency in decision making to rock bottom, the youth of today seeks greater public accountability, transparency and probity. There is not a line of cynicism in his conclusion and he sounds very hopeful of GenNext.

Beyond the personal

Unlike some other memoirs, this one is not about a person, but about a constitutional institution. This becomes evident from the fact that he devotes the least amount of ink on attempts to unleash the CBI to drag his name in an uncalled-for manner to dent his integrity.

In two chapters titled, Role of Audit and Media Policy, Rai narrates even some of those battles that were fought and remained inconclusive, for example, the battle to seek amendments in the CAG (Duties, Powers and Conditions of Services) Act, 1971.

He also talks about a presentation to the Planning Commission in 2009 which demonstrated that more than half the expenditure of the Central Plan Fund for different schemes (roughly Rs 60,000 crore in 2009) did not fall within the automatic legal mandate of the CAG. The CAG office sought a mandate to enable the audit of all Central Plan expenditure.

Another aspect where the CAG office wanted to minimise ambiguity was the question of ‘response time to audit queries’ -- the extant provision in the CAG (DPC) Act, 1971 only states that ‘audit queries will be replied (to) with all reasonable expedition’.

Rai writes on this issue stating, “If the department being audited chooses to procrastinate or, in fact, not respond, audit can merely issue reminder letters and nothing more. Compare that to the common man’s rights under the Right to Information (RTI) Act – an answer within thirty days, failing which the departmental official is liable to face punishment. Our request: why not similarly empower the audit office?”

Till date the CAG (DPC) Act, 1971 remains without those amendments that have been sought constantly for past six years – the murmurs asserting that the provisions need to be amended suitably were voiced first at the Accountant Generals’ Conference in 2008.

Several questions have arisen over time: What is the option for CAG auditors? Should they be giving up their identity as a member of the Indian Accounts and Audit Department and seek access to the records that are not being given to them by government officials, by filing an RTI application in their capacity as citizens of this country, who are bestowed with the right to information under the RTI Act, 2005? Wouldn’t that undermine their constitutional position inasmuch as that the CAG of India office is considered the Supreme Audit Institution? Why have that adjective ‘supreme,’ if the CAG of India can’t fight back the efforts of a delinquent government official to make auditors subordinate to his/her whims and fancies?

The second amendment to the CAG (DPC) Act, 1971 relates to expansion of the reach of CAG audit to regulatory authorities, public-private projects and schemes being implemented under Panchayati Raj Institutions.

The third amendment sought relates to the provision on stipulating a definite time line for the government to table CAG audit reports in the Parliament/ Legislative Assembly after having received it from the CAG office. Right now, the extant provision specifies, ‘as soon as may be after it is received’. Yet, as Rai tells us, the audit report on the Delhi Metro was delayed by a year!

In the amendment sought by the CAG of India in its September 2009 presentation to the then Finance Minister, Mr Pranab Mukherjee, and subsequently in a communication sent to the Ministry in October 2010, a time period of seven days was proposed to be prescribed for tabling the audit report from the date that it has been received from the CAG.

Reading the memoirs, I have felt that Rai should have gone into the details of how the UPA I, under the leadership of Manmohan Singh, was harbouring thoughts of clipping the CAG’s wings by denying them the mandate to audit PSUs in September 2005. By quoting his senior officers, he could have highlighted how they fought back these efforts where there was a chance of even the biggest opposition party joining hands with UPA I.

Then deputy whip of the Bharatiya Janata Party, M A K Swain is on record, having written an opinion in The Economic Times on 2 December 2005, arguing thus:

“In order to compete globally, PSEs must be allowed to take quick and independent decisions with no vigilance, CBI or CAG breathing down their neck. True, the CAG is the auditor of the government. But it should not be a captive audit. CAG should compete with other international bidders for auditing the PSUs. Openness in the process of the selection of external auditor will relieve the PSUs of their fear of being burdened with very typical rule and procedure bound government auditors.”

Perhaps, the tales of how silent crusaders of the Indian Accounts and Auditing Services grouped themselves together and fought against this effort by taking their petitions to the then president of India await chronicling in another memoir sometime in the future by someone else.  

REFERENCES

  1. UPA’s crumbling credibility, The New Indian Express, July 11, 2011

  2. Accountant who saw the pixels but not the picture

  3. Are blue-eyed bureaucrats made CAG, asks petition in Supreme Court

  4. Kumar, Vijay (2008) Thematic History of CAG of India (1990-2007), APH Publishing Corporation, New Delhi.

  5. Sezhiyan, Era (2007-08) Checks and Balances: Choosing the Next CAG, Frontline, Vol 24, Issue 25, December 22, 2007 – January 04, 2008