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Journey from ‘regular’ babu to India’s ‘conscience keeper’

Not Just An Accountant: The Diary of the Nation’s Conscience Keeper, By Vinod Rai Rupa pp. 267, Rs 500

Date published: October 15, 2014Publication: Asian Age, The Link to original article
Tags: UPA / CAG / Vinod Rai

How did Vinod Rai metamorphose from just another nondescript bureaucrat, albeit an upright one, to a crusader against corruption who acquired iconic status? One reason is related to the fact that he became a constitutional authority, the Comptroller and Auditor General of India. T.N. Seshan, who was reportedly a pliant bureaucrat, starting roaring like a lion after he became the head of the Election Commission. Mr Rai’s present persona is a product of circumstances, a consequence of the perception that he was a genuine guardian of the country’s public finances at a time when a series of scandals broke, unprecedented in terms of their scope, size and sheer brazenness. He was the man under whose tutelage the office of the CAG sought to precisely point out the extent of the loot of India’s natural resources.

The first chapter of the book under review is rather deceptive as it stands apart from the rest of the volume. This chapter appears to be one more compilation of the memoirs of a civil servant as Mr Rai describes selected episodes which he considers memorable during his journey from the plains of Nagaland through the backwaters of “God’s own country” to the corridors of power in the national capital. These vignettes are perhaps not very dissimilar from similar snatches of experience from the professional career of many a bureaucrat with a spine. We get no indication how he ended up becoming perceived as the “nation’s conscience keeper”.

The chapters that follow the first one outline some of most spectacular scandals in contemporary Indian history. These include the arbitrary manner in which second-generation (2G) telecommunications spectrum was allocated and priced, the shameful way in which projects related to the Commonwealth Games were implemented, the opaque allotment of coal blocks, the flawed production sharing contract between the ministry of petroleum and natural gas and a company controlled by Reliance Industries Limited which is contracted to extract gas from the Krishna-Godavari basin and the systematic crippling of the public sector airline Air India. At stake in each episode was humongous sums of public money.

Dense with facts, many of which are well-known, what Mr Rai does in his book is to add anecdote after anecdote which seek to explain why he became the most reviled figure for many not-so-honourable ministers in the UPA government. Unlike former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh who was always polite and restrained in his public and private interactions with the then CAG, the former PM’s colleagues and compatriots in the Congress were less circumspect. The unabashed manner in Kapil Sibal, former communications minister, propounded his “zero loss” theory in the 2G scam, helped convert Mr Rai from one more babu to a super-hero in the eyes of many. What he has emphasised is that former communications minister Andimuthu Raja could never have got away doing what he did had it not been for the inaction of Dr Singh and former finance minister Palaniappan Chidambaram.

Mr Rai details how he was accused wrongly, in his opinion of spoiling India’s famous economic “growth story”. He also highlights how systematic attempts were made to undermine, if not sabotage, the work of the CAG by a former colleague R.P. Singh, a former CAG V.K. Shunglu and the former minister of state in the PMO V. Narayanasamy. The first of the three mentioned, Mr Singh, who was director general in the CAG’s office, contradicted himself and tied himself up in verbal knots on the question of calculating the “presumptive” losses in the 2G scam. The role of a particular English daily, the Indian Express, in highlighting Mr Singh’s dubious claims are worthy of note.

Over and above the politicians in the UPA government who were busy lambasting the CAG, Mr Rai points out how former CAG Mr Shunglu faulted two of his successors through the report of a committee he headed that had been appointed by the executive. This committee not merely looked into the conduct of the Commonwealth Games but went way beyond its brief and took unwarranted pot-shots at a Constitutional authority, Mr Rai argues. As for Mr Narayanasamy, his apparent ardour to convert the CAG’s office into a multi-member body like the Election Commission soon got dissipated with the realisation that amending the Constitution was easier said than done.

After the publication of his book, Mr Rai gave interviews to the media as a result of which at least one Congress leader Sanjay Nirupam has threatened to sue him for defamation for quoting him (Mr Nirupam) saying on the sidelines of a meeting of the Public Accounts Committee of MPs that the name of former PM Dr Singh should be dropped from the CAG’s report on the 2G scam. Mr Rai has also been accused of hogging all the credit for the work done by a huge team of government auditors who worked under him and for paying only lip-service to their efforts.

In his book, Mr Rai seeks to dispel the impression that the CAG’s office did not brook any dissent from subordinate officers in the context of the claims that were made by R.P. Singh. The former CAG points out instances when he over-ruled his juniors: in one case, he reproduces a note from the then director general Roy Mathrani who wanted the CAG to audit the manner in which the Ministry of Home Affairs handed out the Padma Awards every year using procedures which were roundly criticised by the Supreme Court as wholly unsatisfactory and amenable to abuse. Mr Rai did not allow Mr Mathrani to proceed ostensibly on the ground that the CAG’s office had to “prioritise the use of... scarce human resources”.

In two other instances relating to the Devas Antrix S-band spectrum issue and the benefits that accrued to the Anil Ambani-led ultra-mega power project at Sasan, Madhya Pradesh, Mr Rai states how the views of his subordinate officers (without naming them) were over-ruled by officers in the headquarters of the CAG while calculating the quantum of losses. He also criticises former minister of state for sports and former Chief Election Commissioner M.S. Gill for comparing the delays in completing projects for the Commonwealth Games with the way a Punjabi wedding takes place where things fall in place only in the final hour.

Before the last section of Mr Rai’s book which contains a series of official letters as appendices, he urges the country’s youth to take up cudgels against corruption and ensure greater probity and transparency in public life.

One of Mr Rai’s predecessors, T.N. Chaturvedi, decided to join politics after he (like Mr Rai) became a target of the ire of the Congress for the CAG report on Bofors in the late-1980s. Mr Chaturvedi went on to become the BJP’s nominee for the post of Karnataka governor.

Mr Rai is unlikely to follow in his footsteps. He will probably stick to playing tennis and dispensing homilies.

Date posted: September 11, 2015Last modified: September 12, 2015Posted byEeshaan Tiwary
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