AUDITING THE AUDITOR
In August 2012, three reports submitted by then Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) Vinod Raion the allocation of coal blocks, functioning of the Delhi airport and allocation of additional coal blocks to Reliance Power had drawn immediate and sharp criticism from the government. The counter was coordinated from the Prime Minister’s Office. The Minister of State in the PMO, V Narayanswamy, was quick to state that the CAG was not following its constitutional mandate, rather over-stepping it by questioning government policy. In view of the recent judgment in the 2G spectrum allocation scam acquitting senior DMK leaders A Raja and M Kanimozhi of any wrong doing has once again brought the focus back on the functioning of the constitutional body. The 2012 CAG reports raised the debate over the mandate of the CAG especially since its leaked reports opened Pandora’s Box, leading to filing of criminal cases against serving Ministers. Originally, public audit was rule-based and was concerned with probity and compliance alone.
However, in later years it came to focus more on performance and results, rather than merely accounting for legality and propriety in public spending. The CAG, especially under Vinod Rai, functioned more in keeping with the new trend rather than sticking to old conventions. However, Vinod Rai’s reports were criticized for having allowed the documents to be leaked and be discussed on every possible forum much before they were tabled in parliament. The Congress leaders, following the 2G scam order, now point out that reports were leaked as part of conspiracy to destabilize the government. They also point to his assignment to administer cash-rich Indian cricket as “a reward for his job done well earlier.” Though there is no evidence to back the allegation.
Till a few years back, however, it was even unthinkable that audit documents, whose sanctity was, if not greater than, at least equal to the budget document, could be leaked. Though the reports got leaked during Vinod Rai’s time much before it were tabled in Parliament, none in CAG’s office bothered to check on this constitutional impropriety. On the hind sight, this reflected towards the increasing urge among the constitutional authorities to assign to themselves the role of the public crusaders. This presumption would invite a debate on the correctness of such a stand. Around the same time when Vinod Rai was writing his reports, civil society activists like Team Anna were attempting to arrogate to themselves the role of a super constitutional authority. The existing constitutional authorities, who needed to function in a detached manner, on the contrary, probably as counterto civil society groups, increasingly worked towards keeping alive the public crusade.
The prevailing situation then and the court orders now definitely call for the need to re-examine and redefine the roles of the constitutional offices.Those who support a pro-active role by the CAG claim that all attempts to improve governance will come to a naught if the agencies responsible for governance do not consider probity in public life and ethical behaviour as cardinal principles in their official dealings. In this the CAG has a role to play as it’s mandated to enforce probity and ethics in public administration.
Watchful, efficient and effective vigilance and auditing structures minimise if not prevent threats to accountable administration of public funds. However, there is another school which maintains the CAG to be a stumbling block in smooth administration, a view which is now being echoed by the advocates of the UPA government. Academically, it was administrative thinker Paul H Appleby who first asked for the scrapping of the office of the national auditor. Journalist, public servant and educator, Appleby went to become the dean of Syracuse University’s Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs. Post- Independence, he came to India on many occasions and published several articles on the Indian administration. He was also responsible for the setting up of the prestigious Indian Institute of Public Administration (IIPA).
In his Second Report on Indian Administration, Appleby had suggested that the office of the CAG should be abolished. According to his thesis, the function of the CAG was in a large measure an inheritance from colonial rule responsible for killing initiative in governance. He called auditing ‘a necessary but highly pedestrian function with a narrow perspective and very limited usefulness.’ He held the auditors responsible for ‘widespread and paralysing unwillingness to decide and to act’ on part of the administrators. The suggestions made by Appleby were not accepted and the pre-eminent position of the CAG was retained as part of parliamentary control over administration. “Since Parliamentary control and statutory audit are the basic features of our Constitution, they cannot be barriers to the accomplishment of Government’s objectives, therefore, audit must not be either scrapped or relaxed,” had said those in the defence of retaining the audit.
However, the sustained leaks from the CAG’s office and the media hysteria it created during Vinod Rai’s term has the potential to usurp the role and control of Parliament in the matters of audit. The Comptroller and Auditor-General, engaged in the scrutiny of the financial affairs of the executive, submits its report to the Parliament and state legislature, to which alone it is responsible. The legislature arbitrates between the auditor and the executive through an important committee called the Public Accounts Committee, which is conventionally headed by a MP from the principal opposition party.With civil society activists questioning the sovereignty of Parliament, the contending parties especially the Opposition played a destructive role by demanding quick fix actions on the audit reports without allowing the matter to be debated in the PAC and thereafter on the floor of the House. The result is for all to see with Raja and Kanimozhi getting acquitted.
Audit reports on earlier occasions too became the basis for criminal investigation, but that happened only after proper enquiry and due procedure. To avoid a 2G scam order like embarrassment, the government of the day should initiate quick debates on the CAG reports and proceed to act against those charged of corruption rather than pushing it under the carpet by questioning the mandate of the CAG and/or delaying it’s tabling in the House.