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Not just an accountant's angst

A K Bhattacharya  |  New Delhi 

The Diary of the Nation's Conscience Keeper
Vinod Rai

Rupa; 268+xvi pages; Rs 500

As independent India's 11th Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) from January 2008 to May 2013, Vinod Rai came under intense and vituperative attack from ruling party politicians. None of his predecessors had to go through the kind of trauma that he had to suffer when ministers and even the prime minister accused him of overstepping the CAG's mandated brief. There were charges that his office had leaked draft reports on irregularities in coal-block allocations and suggestions that the CAG was wrongly adjudicating on policy instead of merely auditing a government department for the possibility of financial irregularities.

Mr Rai did try to clarify his stance on each of these issues and even wrote to the prime minister. But the attack against him became more vicious as the months went by and the CAG's reports made bigger headlines that caused the government major embarrassment. Indeed Mr Rai spent the last few months of his tenure wondering where he went right or where he was wrong. In the end, he could not have suppressed his angst at being wronged by the government and Congress politicians who were hurt by his tell-all reports of financial malfeasance and irregularities. As the 2014 general election results showed, the rise of the Bharatiya Janata Party led by Narendra Modi was facilitated to a large extent by popular disenchantment of Congress misrule corroborated by the damaging findings of Mr Rai's reports.

It is, therefore, no surprise that Mr Rai would eventually tell his side of the story. Perhaps his training as an Indian Administrative Service (IAS) officer encouraged him to publish his account only after the general elections were over and more than a year had passed since he retired in May 2013. No cheap thrills for this upright IAS officer (as financial services secretary he once backed a public-sector bank against the wishes of his minister).

Mr Rai has often been accused of being responsible for the Congress' electoral defeat and disparagingly described as the bhumihar from Ghazipur. Yes, Mr Rai is a bhumihar by caste and he indeed hails from Ghazipur in Bihar. But as this book will tell you, neither caste nor birthplace were factors in the upbringing of this urbane, soft-spoken bureaucrat who, by a quirk of fate, was allotted Nagaland as his cadre. As destiny would have it, the Nagaland administration refused to accept him along with some fellow IAS recruits and he was finally sent to Kerala.

As the reason for writing the book, Mr Rai's angst against the behaviour of the political class may well have been a valid one. But the feeling pervades the book so comprehensively that it often acquires a self-righteous tone, particularly when Mr Rai recounts the impunity with which the political class squanders and loots government resources. The problem is that the sanctimonious tone becomes so overpowering that large sections of the book read like a sermon. Perhaps this is inevitable given the subject of the book.

Yet the five cases that the CAG investigated and Mr Rai writes about are an eye-opener on how the political system was exploited to help some privileged sections reap special dividends in violation of all canons of law. Each of them - the allotment of second-generation (2G) telecom spectrum, the production-sharing contract for the Krishna-Godavari gas basin, the conduct of the Commonwealth Games in 2010, the allocation of coal blocks and the controversial purchase of aircraft by the country's national carrier - became a major political controversy and the Opposition used each of them to put the government in the dock. Mr Rai, of course, reserves his sharpest comments for Manmohan Singh, who in his view could have stopped the 2G scam if only he had insisted on a meeting of the group of ministers to discuss the telecom minister's proposal on spectrum allocation.

Mr Rai presents his arguments in defence of the CAG's findings on all these five cases in such a lucid and logical way that they should be a lesson for all government auditors. The reports most CAG officers bring out specialise in turgid prose and, worse, make no effort at placing their analysis in context to bring out their relevance. The author also painstakingly builds a strong defence of the transparent and autonomous way auditors discharge their constitutionally mandated functions. Internal differences of opinion on what should be audited and what should be left out are as much a part of these auditors' daily lives as their commitment to unravel what has gone wrong in implementing government policies.

Where Mr Rai goes slightly wrong is the anguish he expresses that so many wrongs were committed by an elected government in spite of multiple safeguards institutionalised in a democratic country like India. It is true that the elected representatives can hijack the system for their personal benefits, but only up to a point. The 2014 general elections showed that India's democracy does not take long to throw out a government that is seen to be corrupt. That is the safeguard in the Indian system Mr Rai should feel good about.

First Published: Wed, September 24 2014. 21:25 IST