The government’s choice of the new Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) has been questioned by activist and senior lawyer Prashant Bhushan, raising the issue of reform in the selection process.
Bhushan on Tuesday questioned the selection of Defence Secretary Shashi Kant Sharma, saying there was a conflict of interest in this appointment and the government had deliberately selected such a person to render the CAG a toothless body. He said the selection once again exposed the “totally non-transparent and arbitrary manner” in which any government can appoint heads of a constitutional body such as the CAG.
Bhushan cited the similarity between the controversial selection of former Chief Vigilance Commissioner P J Thomas and this one of Sharma. “The Supreme Court had quashed the appointment of P J Thomas as CVC in 2011, citing violation of the principle of institutional integrity, as Thomas was facing disciplinary proceedings at that time. Won’t this principle apply to Sharma?'' he asked, pointing out that Sharma was defence secretary and head of procurement for many years. “Now, being made CAG, will he audit his own actions?''
He alleged the experience of a strong CAG such as the outgoing one, Vinod Rai, had made the government cautious enough to go for a person who would not be in a position to criticise anyone.
Why, asked Bhushan, were the main Opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the media both silent on the issue?
Bhushan’s main grouse against Sharma is his previous posting as defence secretary. However, Rai had also been in the defence department. The earlier CAG, V N Kaul, was secretary in the ministries of petroleum and natural gas, chemicals and fertilisers, coal and so on, all positions that can be said to conflict with his job as auditor for the government’s accounts. The CAG before Kaul was V K Shunglu (1996-2002) who held positions in finance, industry, energy, company affairs.
The charges made by Bhushan point to the absence of a definite procedure for appointment of a CAG. The Comptroller and Auditor General’s (Duties, Powers and Conditions of Service) Act, 1971, does not say a word on the appointment, though it spells out ways to keep the post independent.
“If CAG officials in the past have done their jobs well, it is in spite of the undemocratic and non-transparent manner of their appointment. Their huge responsibility often makes them act in a way they have not done as IAS officers,” remarked Bhushan.
He said the finance ministry admitted in a recent response to a Right to Information query that there was no fixed process of appointment of the CAG. In fact, a CAG is merely selected by the Prime Minister unilaterally, without consultation.
BJP leader L K Advani had last year suggested CAG’s be appointed by a collegium of the ruling and opposition parties. Former CAG V N Shunglu, in his report on the Commonwealth Games controversies, had suggested making the CAG a multi-member body.
“If there are questions being raised against the new CAG, then the government has to give an explanation,” said D Raja of the Communist Party of India. He said it was time Parliament evolved a mechanism so that appointment to constitutional bodies became transparent and non-controversial.