Call to account

The Comptroller and Auditor General of India Vinod Rai told a meeting of the World Economic Forum that the "brazenness" with which government decisions were being taken is "actually appalling". A day before that, he had told students in Shillong that the "suffering majority had begun to speak up". In times when corruption is the central issue and the government evidently suffers from a credibility deficit, the statements may not seem problematic in themselves. Yet, they are unseemly coming from the CAG, who heads the very institution that demands financial accountability from the government. The Constitution equates it with the judiciary, it is an important part of the system of check and balances, and over the years it has uncovered unfair government discretion, mismanagement and corruption. The CAG should fulfil its professional mandate rather than plotting a storyline of "nepotism, love of power, profiteering and black-marketing", as Rai put it in Shillong.

What is the CAG's professional duty? To provide rigorous audits, furnish reasons for its assumptions, check with the ministry being evaluated and then present a report. That every party in power has been riled by its reports is proof of its impact. Recently, however, in a climate hospitable to OB van opposition, the CAG too seems to have chosen the short-cut of going "activist", lobbing numbers that don't bear up to scrutiny. It has computed what-might-have-been scenarios, had an alternative route been chosen. This has exposed it to the charge of straying into policy judgments, and also of relying on premises that are open to question. The figures for coal losses, for instance, valued undeveloped blocks in difficult areas on par with Coal India's up-and-running mines; the value was calculated at current prices though they were allotted before commodity prices rose sharply in 2007. It is argued that this kind of institutional activism ultimately serves the public good. The CAG glare, it is hoped, will ensure that public officials fear to bend norms. By the same token, however, the CAG cannot afford to take the criticism of its methods or its numbers casually. They are the very foundation of its authority.

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