Congress calling on CAG to recuse himself from probing Rafale deal shows its callous disregard for institutions

  • Rahul Gandhi is angry again

  • The Congress under Rahul has been launching relentless attack on public institutions

  • The damage to institutions will be permanent.

Rahul Gandhi is angry again. As the election dates draw near, Rahul these days remains locked in a perennial stupor of intense anger even though he claims to profess “politics of love”. Be that as it may, on Tuesday the Congress president launched another savage attack on Narendra Modi, calling the prime minister “a middleman” for businessman Anil Ambani.

 Congress calling on CAG to recuse himself from probing Rafale deal shows its callous disregard for institutions

Rahul Gandhi at a press conference addressing the Rafale controversy. Image courtesy: Twitter/INC India

Citing a media report, Rahul accused the prime minister of “violating Official Secrets Act”, called him a “spy” and said Modi should be “put in jail for committing treason”. We shall see more colourful language closer to the elections, but what seems particularly interesting is the Congress president’s stance on the CAG report on Rafale, which at the time of writing is about to be tabled in Parliament.

The Congress president has presumably not seen the report because it was submitted to the president and the finance ministry only yesterday and had not been tabled when Rahul conducted a news conference on Tuesday to dismiss it with all the disdain at his command.

Why did the Congress president call the still-to-be-tabled report “worthless” and belittle the institution as “chowkidar auditor general”? Presumably because the Congress has brought charges of “conflict of interest” against Rajiv Mehrishi, and claimed that he should “recuse himself” from auditing the deal because he was “part of the negotiations”.

Mehrishi, incidentally, was the Union finance secretary when the intra-governmental deal was signed between India and France. The Congress “advised” Mehrishi in a media statement that: “It is an act of gross impropriety for you to deal with the audit of the 36 Rafale aircraft deal on account of patent conflict of interest...You are constitutionally, legally and morally disentitled to either conduct an audit or to present a report before...Parliament. We urge upon you to recuse yourself and publicly accept the gross impropriety committed by you in initiating the audit...” because “finance ministry plays an important role in these negotiations... Now it is clear that the Rafale deal happened under Rajeev Mehrishi. Now he is CAG.”

The Congress argument, in a nutshell, is that since as finance secretary Mehrishi was “part of the negotiations”, he cannot initiate a “probe against himself” and therefore this report carries no meaning, as Rahul claimed on Tuesday.

In his rebuttal, Union minister Arun Jaitley in a series of tweets claimed that Congress is indulging in another “falsehood”. “Another attack on the institution of CAG by the ‘Institution wreckers’ based on falsehood. After ten years in Government former UPA ministers still don’t know that finance secretary is only a designation given to the senior most secretary in the finance ministry... defence ministry files are dealt with by secretary (Expenditure). Secretary (Economic affairs) has no role in expenditure files of the defence ministry,” he said.

In a blog post on Tuesday, Jaitley expanded on his argument to write: “I say this without fear of contradiction that no file or paper relating to the Rafale transaction ever reached him (Mehrish as finance secretary) nor was he in any way, directly or indirectly, associated with the decision making on defence purchases. Expenditure to be incurred on purchases by various departments of the Government needs the approval of secretary (Expenditure).” But let us for a moment assume that Jaitley’s defence is weak and Mehrishi does indeed have a “conflict of interest.”

Incidentally, the Congress earlier urged the same CAG, not once but twice, to do a “forensic audit” of Rafale deal. On 19 September, a delegation of senior Congress leaders met the CAG (Rajiv Mehrishi) and submitted a memorandum. Talking to reporters later, Congress leader Anand Sharma said: “We have given a detailed memorandum along with enclosures on the irregularities and acts of omission and commission by the government in the fighter jet deal. We expect the CAG will prepare a report soon and present it before Parliament...” Sharma also expressed confidence that when “when the report on the deal comes out in public domain, the real scam will come out and the truth shall prevail.”

If the Congress was aware that CAG is suffering from a “conflict of interest” issue, why didn’t the party raise it then, instead of reposing faith that “truth shall prevail” when report comes out?

In another memorandum in October, Congress approached the same CAG again and in a second memorandum on Rafale deal, submitted: “It is expected that the CAG which has a constitutional mandate and authority to scrutinise every document, in this case including original tender, understanding reached between Dassault and HAL and the arbitrary decision of the prime minister without any mandate from Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) will undertake a forensic audit.”

Now that the CAG report on Rafale is complete, submitted and about to be tabled in Parliament, suddenly Congress comes up with a “conflict of interest” charge and claims that the CAG is “trying to save himself and the government” from a scam.

A series of questions arise. Why did the Congress remain silent for so long? Why did it repose faith repeatedly in the same CAG? Why is it raising this issue now? Does it fear that a “forensic audit” has found the deal to be proper and in conjunction with laid down rules and processes, and consequently its Rafale campaign may fall flat? If it was sure in September and October that “truth shall prevail”, what happened in the intervening months to assume that CAG is trying to “save itself and the government”?

The Congress is unlikely to answer these questions, but the party’s conduct points to an unfortunate pattern of behaviour in recent times coinciding with Rahul’s stewardship. There is now an increasing tendency to question the credibility of all public institutions and undermine their sanctity if the decisions are inconvenient to Congress’ narrative.

From the politically motivated impeachment motion against then chief justice of India that severely undermined the judiciary’s integrity to questioning the credibility of Election Commission by raising phony charges of EVM manipulation whenever the party suffers losses in elections, the Congress under Rahul has been launching relentless attack on public institutions. It has no problems when election results go in its favour, but starts detecting EVM anomalies the moment it suffers a reverse.

No other party has tried to challenge the credibility of the highest court of the land as Rahul-led Congress has done. When the Supreme Court gave a clean chit to the government on Rafale, the Congress demanded that the Supreme Court “recall” its verdict and “try” the government for perjury and contempt.

The Congress may have a legitimate case against the government on Rafale. It is fully within its right to challenge the government on facts and demand answers and accountability. That is the hallmark of a functioning democracy. But to cite a media report in a news conference and call the prime minister a “spy” and a “middleman” is unprecedented even by the low standards of Indian political discourse. Elections bring temporal power to parties. The damage to institutions will be permanent.

Updated Date: Feb 12, 2019 17:23:52 IST