By repeatedly decrying the CAG and trying to malign the person occupying that Constitutional office, the UPA government is weakening an important pillar of democracy and lowering its own credibility
Admitting that there is a great deal of uncertainty and a perception of policy paralysis in the government these days, a senior Cabinet colleague of the prime minister recently observed that it was being created by the activities of (Comptroller and Auditor General of India (CAG)! “We have to think ourselves whether we have selected a proper person... I haven’t seen something like this (CAG’s numerous reports on the scams of the UPA) in the 45 years of my career as a politician”. What he unwittingly implied was that the scams associated with the UPA were the biggest ever to take place during the sixty-four years of independent India and, had CAG remained a mute spectator to them, UPA would have succeeded in keeping the Parliament and the people of the country in blissful ignorance of the sheer magnitude and the virulence of those scams.
It was indeed the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) of India which audited the accounts of the government in recent years and provided comprehensive reports to the Parliament and the people at large on the irregularities and the excesses committed in the infamous Lavasa scam in Maharashtra, the 2G (second generation) spectrum scam at the Centre, the improprieties committed in the conduct of the Commonwealth Games, the design and implementation of the production sharing contracts entered into with private oil company (Reliance Industries) that is developing the Krishna Godavari natural gas fields and the arbitrary allotment of captive coal blocks to private companies, all having huge financial implications to the public exchequer.
The CAG’s revelations on the captive coal scam touched the sensitive nerves of the UPA politicians because the UPA, largely during the time when the prime minister himself headed the coal ministry, allotted 248 captive coal blocks to companies mostly in the private sector, in a highly non-transparent manner, yielding huge windfall profits to the latter. On a complaint received by it, the Central Vigilance Commission (CVC), yet another statutory body, rightly ordered an investigation by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) to ascertain whether there were any improprieties committed and determine the responsibility of all those concerned. When Anna Hazare and the opposition demanded that the investigation should also cover the involvement of the PMO, the latter rubbished it saying that there was no need for it, thereby pre-empting both the CVC and the CBI in one go from doing anything that would tarnish PMO’s image!
With specific reference to the coal scam, a UPA minister even went to the extent of flaying the role of the CAG and said, “the CAG has no business, power or authority to question the government’s policy... They can only consider if the due process is followed or not... Nowadays what happens is that the CAG has become an organization that questions the policy of the government.”
To the billion people of this country, what really matters is not whether the CAG or CVC can question the executive’s actions but whether the executive itself has acted in the larger public interest. The minister was evidently trying to obfuscate this central issue! The people of this country have not forgotten how the UPA had earlier tried to make a questionable appointment to the office of CVC itself and how the not so palatable facts came to light, entirely through judicial intervention.
By repeatedly decrying the role of the CAG and trying to malign the person occupying that high Constitutional office, these political functionaries have not only lowered their own government’s credibility but also done something unpardonable, that is, tried to weaken an important pillar of our democracy, created as such in Part V of the Constitution. The CAG is as an important instrument of the Parliament to exercise control over the executive, in terms of the way it manages the public finances. What these politicians have deliberately or unwittingly done was to weaken the Parliamentary system of democracy itself by making such irresponsible statements. Not one of these politicians has ever tried to strengthen the hands of CAG to help promote greater transparency in the way the government manages the resources of the public exchequer.
As it is, the CAG’s audit covers only half of the public expenditure incurred in the country. The Parliament has no way to get authentic information on how the rest of the expenditure is incurred, especially the amounts routed through Public Private Partnerships (PPPs), Panchayati Raj Institutions (PRIs), Self Help Groups (SHGs) and so on. Article 149 of the Constitution empowers the Parliament to enlarge the ambit of CAG to cover this. To meet this end, as long ago as in November 2009, the CAG proposed a far reaching amendment to CAG (Duties, Powers and Conditions of Service) Act, 1971. More than thirty months have elapsed and the government is yet to refer the draft to the Parliament.
Coming to the role of the judiciary the apex court of India, in its order of 27 July 2010, found fault with the government for allowing millions of tonnes of foodgrain to rot in the godowns of Food Corporation of India (FCI) and asked the government to consider distributing the foodgrain to the poor, free of cost. This invoked a righteous indignation among the UPA leaders who questioned the judiciary's authority to ‘intrude’ into the executive’s policy domain.
Free foodgrain to the poor would no doubt cost the nation a whopping Rs1,00,000 crore and, for the UPA, ‘subsidy’ is apparently a bad word, if it were to be given to the poor. On the other hand, the same UPA leaders had no compunction whatsoever in doling out tax exemptions to the corporates to the tune of Rs5,29,432 crore (latest Budget estimate for 2011-12). The concessions given to the industry are “economic incentives” for promoting growth. There seems to be one theory of economics for the poor and a different one for the rich!
One could feel the heat of UPA’s resentment against the apex court’s order on rotting foodgrain when the prime minister himself made the following remarks, addressing an international conference of jurists a couple of months later.
“I respectfully submit that the Supreme Court should not go into the realm of policy formulation. I respect the sentiments behind the (court) decision that when foodgrain are rotting and people are suffering from deprivation, then some way should be found to ensure that the food needs of the deprived sections are met. But quite honestly it is not possible in this country to give free food to all the poor people.”
The Indian Constitution has always guaranteed food and nutritional security to its citizens. However, the successive governments have never thought it obligatory on their part to translate that guarantee into a well-defined policy for more than six decades since Independence! It was only when the judiciary nudged them into action that they thought it fit to introduce a Bill on food security. What the National Advisory Council (NAC) proposed by way of food security was not to the liking of some senior leaders of UPA. As a result, there has been a further delay in processing the Bill. Meanwhile, foodgrain continue to rot in FCI’s godowns and the poor continue to starve.
Has the UPA executive sincerely tried enough to take the people of this country into confidence on matters of public importance?
Certainly, the enactment of the Right to Information (RTI) Act in 2005 was a defining step taken in that direction, though it was the civil society that forced the executive to enact the law and it was the judiciary that interpreted the ambit of Article 19 of the Constitution that such a law would be necessary.
Unfortunately, subsequent moves made by the UPA failed to invoke public confidence in its intentions. The subjective way in which the information commissioners were chosen left much to be desired. When the government tried to exempt the official file notings from RTI Act, it was the citizens who resisted that move, since the notes recorded in the files of the public authorities revealed the thought processes that went into decision making. When investigative journalism exposed the various scandals, some of which have been specifically referred above, it was the judiciary that intervened to direct the CBI to investigate the same, independent of the executive. As if to keep the public in the dark about what the CBI was doing, the present UPA government hurriedly exempted CBI from the RTI!
The main grievance of the people residing around Kudankulam Nuclear Power Project is that they have all along been kept in the dark about the activities that revolved around the project. The Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) headed by the prime minister himself made a mockery of the RTI by not complying fully with the mandatory disclosure requirement under Section 4. Instead of respecting the citizen’s right to know under Article 19 of the Constitution, the UPA government has slipped in a non-disclosure clause in the recently introduced Bill on nuclear regulation, once again in open defiance of the RTI. By making light of the RTI, the UPA government has eroded its own credibility.
The UPA leadership should understand clearly that no political party has the right to undermine the integrity of the institutions that play a central role in nurturing our great Parliamentary democratic system. After all, no political party is ever certain that it will remain in power permanently. It is the Constitution and the institutions created by it that help the ruling party to deliver good governance and the opposition to play the role of a constructive critic, expected from it. Any weakening of the institutions will only upset this delicate balance that is so crucial for the working of our democracy. Sooner the UPA leadership realises this, the better would it be for the future of our democracy.
(Dr EAS Sarma, IAS, is a post-graduate in Nuclear Physics (Andhra University) and in Public Administration (Harvard University) and a Ph D from IIT, Delhi. As a Union Secretary he has held the portfolios of Power, Economic Affairs and Expenditure. He quit the government in 2000 over differences regarding policy issues with the National Democratic Alliance government. He is the convener of Forum for Better Visakha (FBV), a civil society group set up in 2004.)