None of the 30 Comptroller & Auditor Generals of India before him had created the kind of waves as he did. Vinod Rai threw up gigantic figures of money allegedly stolen from government coffers. In full public glare, he exposed corruption â€” first 2G and then Coalgate â€” which shook the government’s very foundation. He was attacked, his motives questioned. But Rai stood his ground. On May 22, his tenure as CAG comes to an end. But even as he departs, he has possibly fundamentally changed the character of the 153-year-old institution. Future CAGs are unlikely to be toothless auditors. Rai discusses his eventful tenure withTOI’s Pradeep Thakur in a free-wheeling interview. Excerpts:
Your tenure has been very eventful. You have redefined CAG by giving it the kind of teeth that TN Seshan gave to the Election Commission. Wouldn’t you agree?
The role of every institution is well defined. It’s only the question of how you operationalize that role, and for operationalizing it’s not the individual who matters. I wouldn’t say it is combination of stars but combination of team, time and the individual. So I was lucky to have a very good team. The other factor that worked in our favour was you – the media, the 24×7 channels. Media has become so alert and it knows what needs to be highlighted. From our report, the media picked up only substantial issues.
There’s a perception that the media did so because you played to the galleries, that CAG in your time has played an adversarial role to the government.
Look, audit by definition has an adversarial role. Whether it is government audit or that of a public sector undertaking, the role of audit is to find out lacuna, to try and ensure that things have been done properly. If the executive takes the suggestions positively, we are on the same side. It’s not ‘we’ and ‘they’; it’s ‘we’. I’m a government servant as much as the finance secretary is. We are all trying to improve the governance of the country, the delivery channels, public policies and how they function. I am giving you suggestions, but if you start stonewalling them, saying what does auditor know, then where do we go? Yes, we work in hindsight, no doubt about it. But, that is what audit is all about.
In hindsight, would it have been better presenting the suggestions in a more low-key manner instead of holding grand press conferences? For that created the impression that you are going for the government’s jugular rather than providing constructive criticism.
I fully agree with you. But you must understand our difficulty. In 1988, post Bofors, the then CAG T N Chaturvedi, the government and the PAC sat together and decided how best to deal with audit reports which are placed in Parliament since lot of misinformation (on Bofors) was doing the rounds. Then we came up with this media policy where it was decided to hold press conferences. The day my report is placed in Parliament, it is also my responsibility to inform the media accurately about what the report contains. This policy is being followed since 1988. The current media policy was framed in 2006 and I joined in 2008. No changes have been brought in. I enclosed this book (media policy) to the PM when he had said that you talk to print media. I wrote to him immediately on policy and asked him, “Sir, what do you expect me to do?”
You said it was a ‘combination of team, time and the individual’. What did you mean?
By time, I meant the churning going on in the society. Citizens have come centre stage. That is why I said time has come. Our report came at a time when Anna Hazare and company where doing something different. There was a general churning in society… so it is a combination of factors.
By churning are you referring to the growing resentment against corruption?
Exactly! And which I think is a very positive development. Our capacity to put up with corruption was going beyond bounds and somewhere the line has been drawn now. It is the younger generation which is making a difference. You and I may agree that if some chai paani has to be given, to get over it, but the younger generation will not tolerate it anymore. And they are the ones who came out on the streets.
Don’t you feel that a person’s worth in society is often measured by his wealth? Doesn’t that give rise to an easy get-rich urge, even if corners are cut, or morals compromised?
It’s weakness in our mind which makes us believe that society values the money you have, that you are respected by the size of your purse. I’ve seen lots of people, in government and outside, who get recognized otherwise. Yes, money in India is a great distinguishing factor. But there are of two types: one is the Mukesh Ambani type, the other is a person at a lower level, the one who gives Rs 100 for a ticket reservation or if I am in commerce ministry, tip my peon only because he opens the door… these are people who are not mature.