In his tenure as the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG), Vinod Rai breathed new life into the institution, turning what had been reduced to a mere accountancy firm into a watchdog of fiscal waste and corruption. His revelations ushered in a period of incredible social churn, with the citizens of the country demanding accountability from the leaders they elect. He says that instead of accusing him of bombast, the government should have taken steps to ensure that such a situation never came to pass.
Edited Excerpts from an Interview
You had a long career in the civil services before your appointment as CAG. You have seen both sides of the divide. What was your opinion of the post before you took over? Did you have any occasion as a secretary to the government to question the CAG’s findings?
Earlier, my view of the CAG was that it was getting into fault-finding exercises, and to that extent, was telling us what was wrong. Which means, he was shutting the door in our face. He was not recommending any procedures. See, when you shut the door, you must open a window. I did have occasions when I was in the defence ministry to contest the CAG’s findings, but in those times, we didn’t have the concept of entry and exit conferences — which we have now — where if you contest the findings, you can do so at the exit conference and have the CAG record your views in his report.
The incumbent government has argued that issues involving determination of policies are outside the CAG’s purview, and that the CAG ought to confine itself to reviewing lapses in policy implementation. Do you agree with this view as a principle of constitutional propriety?
Certainly. I’m of the view that policy formulation is the prerogative of the executive. After all, we are a parliamentary democracy. The CAG is not an elected body; I didn’t represent the public in that sense. Our job, then, is to audit whether the policies, which the government has announced, are actually implemented.
The most celebrated case brought to light by the CAG in recent memory is, of course, the 2G spectrum allocation issue and the 1.76 lakh crore figure for presumptive loss. Considering that the CBI pegged the figure at around Rs 30,000 crore, do you think your figure was grossly overestimated?
No, I don’t think it’s a gross overestimate. How was that figure arrived at? By comparing it with the 3G auction. In 2010, a figure of that kind did actually accrue to the government. So, while it is not accurate to say that all that money would have come to the government, but it did lose a significant amount that could have accrued to the treasury. Also, tell me, if that figure wasn’t there, would you have read my report? Would the public have had the benefit of time to understand what was going wrong? And, more importantly, a national resource is something that all of us own. That resource is being given to a crony for nothing. Shouldn’t society protest about that?
Auditors always have the benefit of hindsight, while the officers taking major policy decisions in a complex environment also have to deal with the element of uncertainty. How far is it fair to judge and find fault in these decisions after the event?
Absolutely right, but external audits are carried out only after the event. There are CAGs in 191 countries; all of them carry out audits after the event. But you have what is known as concurrent, or internal, audit that is supposed to be done by ministries as the event unfolds. This was pointed out to the telecom ministry, but they were not accepting it. For five years, I have been writing to the PM, asking him to beef up the internal audit. Unfortunately, he hasn’t done it.