Why UPA plan to make CAG a multi-member body is cause for worry

The timing of the proposal to make the CAG a multi-member body, as articulated by V. Narayanaswamy, renders the government's motives suspect.

Vembu November 12, 2012 10:08:00 IST
Why UPA plan to make CAG a multi-member body is cause for worry

The famed dirty tricks department of the UPA government is at it again. Minister of State in the Prime Minister's Office V Narayanaswamy, who has in recent times been the principal mouthpiece channelling the government's ineptitude, blurted out in an interview to PTI on Sunday that the government was "actively considering" a proposal to make the office of the Comptroller and Auditor-General (CAG) a multi-member body.

But barely hours after the interview was published, Narayanaswamy responded to a chorus of justified criticism of the proposal by claiming, in the manner of every politician who has been caught with his foot in his mouth, that  he had been "misquoted" and that he had not, during the interview, been asked specific questions about the CAG.

“He (the PTI reporter) did not specifically ask me about the CAG," Narayanaswamy said. "I did not specifically reply to him about the CAG, which he misquoted me saying that the government is considering making the CAG a multi-member body. I did not say that.”

Why UPA plan to make CAG a multimember body is cause for worry

The UPA government has been gunning for CAG Vinod Rai.  Image courtesy PIB

But PTI has contested the Minister's claim that he was misquoted, and has established that the transcripts of the tape-recorded interview bear out its narrative - that the Minister did say on the record that the government was "actively considering" a proposal to make the CAG a multi-member body.

According to the transcripts, as made available by PTI, Narayanaswamy was specifically asked about the recommendation made by former CAG VK Shunglu that the constitutional office of the CAG be made a multi-member body.

Question: Other than submitting six reports, they have written a letter to the Prime Minister in which he (Shunglu) has talked about changes in CAG that it should to be made multi member body instead of being one (member)... The recommendation is somewhere in the PMO.

To which, PTI notes, the Minister responded by saying: "No, no. It is under active consideration." The conversation then flowed thus:

Q: Do you mean to say that government is considering...

A: (The minister interjected to say) Actively considering.

Q: So the CAG would be made a three-member body?

A: When a decision is taken, I will let you know. Both the things (CAG and detaching Chief Technical Examination wing of CVC) are under the consideration of the government. All the reports and separate recommendations that have been given for the statutory modifications of the bodies of the government of India are under the consideration of the government.

Now, there are many ways that one can spin a story, but the transcripts made available by the news agency establishes that Narayanaswamy did explicitly say that the government was "actively considering" a recommendation to broadbase the CAG. But within hours, after the shellacking that the proposal received from Opposition leaders, he was looking to dial back his words, and took refuge in the politician's favourite refuge: that he had been "misquoted."

To be fair, there is nothing inherently wrong in a proposal to broadbase a Constitutional office. The experience of other such Constitutional offices - such as the Election Commission - which too was made more broadbased in the late 1980s by the induction of two additional Election Commissioners, has demonstrated that so long as the officers appointed to the office themselves were upright, the authority of the Election Commission to carry out its mandated responsibility would not be compromised. Which is perhaps why SY Quraishi, who recently retired as the Chief Election Commissioner, argues that the CAG would in fact become more powerful if it has more than one member.

But as with all things about the UPA government, the timing of the proposal, as articulated by Narayanaswamy, renders its motives suspect. The government has been profoundly embarrassed by the CAG's reports in recent years, which have exposed monumental scandals under its watch. And although, as Firstpost has pointed out earlier, one may quibble with the CAG on specific aspects of its arguments for arriving at a notional loss to the exchequer, the underlying rationale of the CAG's reports, and its core argument that opacity in implementing government policy - be it auction of telecom spectrum or the allocation of coal mines - had led to unjust enrichment of private players at the expense of the exchequer.

As former Deputy CAG Anol Nath Chatterji  points out (here), the CAG's prime and overriding function is to help Parliament exercise financial control over public resources. And in discharging that responsibility, the Indian "supreme audit institution" abides firmly with global best practices.  Chatterji recalls that in times past, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru had argued that for the CAG to be criticised by parliamentarians would ""tend to undermine his special position under the Constitutioon and would make it difficult for him to discharge his duties without fear or favour."

In recent weeks and months, however, we've seen a succession of full-throated criticism of the CAG by Congress spokespersons Digvijaya Singh and Manish Tewari, among others. With callous disregard for the Constitutional authority that the office of the CAG wields, they have been carrying out a hatchet job on Vinod Rai, the current holder of that high office. It is true of course that in his public articulations, Rai has proved himself to be taking his responsibility with almost evangelical zeal, but given the pivotal nature of his office, and its track record in exposing policy flaws that resulted in colossal losses to the exchequer, there is merit in the argument that we probably need more than a file-pushing babu in such an office.

It is in that context that the government's proposal to make the CAG a multi-member body, which Narayanaswamy blurted out in a moment of indiscretion,  shows up the suspect motives of the UPA government. Going by the track record of the UPA government, the suspicion is that it is looking to pack the benches of a multi-member CAG and effectively wrestle down any attempt by an independent-minded CAG to point to policy flaws that induce losses to the exchequer.

It just goes to show that the UPA government is getting more and more brazen in its attempts to cover up its ineptitude - and its track record of monumental corruption. Evidently no authority, much less a Constitutional authority, is so sacred that the dirty tricks department of the government will not attempt a hatchet job on it.

The uproar following Narayanaswamy's spilling the beans may have induced the government to pause in its mala fide endeavour, but it will require eternal vigilance to push back the government's 'dirty tricks' department from pushing through with this suspect proposal.

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