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So much sleaze has seeped out of this government's closets in the past two years that it is no surprise that the Comptroller & Auditor General of India (CAG) has become a national hero. This formerly faceless official is such a celebrity today that respected international newspapers write profiles of Vinod Rai. And, it is entirely because of him that it was possible for Anna Hazare during his recent hunger strike in Jantar Mantar to demand the sacking of fifteen ministers. The corruption charges made against them were mostly based on CAG reports.
Last week on the day his reports on the coal and civil aviation ministries were tabled in Parliament, anchors on our 24-hour news channels treated them as the gospel truth. Some of our more excitable anchors pronounced gleefully that the integrity of the Prime Minister himself was now in question. Was it not he, they demanded in shrill voices, who had additional charge of the coal ministry at the time when private companies were given mining rights? 'The Prime Minister has a lot of explaining to do,' screeched one anchor. As for him who always speaks on behalf of 'the people of India' he was so overexcited about the new 'revelations' that I had to switch channels for fear that he might burst through the screen and land on my floor.
The applause for the CAG is so loud and so universal that I find myself having to tread cautiously when I say that I am not among Mr Rai's admirers. And, that I am very worried about how his figures change so dramatically and how some of his most important findings appear to be based on a notional idea of losses. If you examine how he calculated the telecom loss at Rs 1.76 lakh crore, you will discover this. It was later whittled down to a miniscule fraction of that staggering figure. If you notice how the alleged losses caused by the Coal Ministry dwindled to Rs 1.86 lakh crore from an equally astounding Rs 10 lakh crore, you may discover this again. When this latter figure was first leaked, some months ago, Surjit Bhalla wrote an excellent column in this newspaper (Where Donkeys fly, March 24, 2012) asserting that it was the 'economic illiteracy' of India that allowed Mr Rai's bizarre mathematics to go unchallenged.