Vinod Rai made audit office a potent people's watchdog
Comptroller and Auditor General Vinod Rai, who demits office Wednesday, will be remembered for turning the statutory body into a pugnacious watchdog of good governance and administrative integrity at a time when India is experiencing the need for greater transparency and a rebalancing of power that has tilted over the years towards the executive.
Rai's five-year tenure (2008-2013) has been a tad controversial because of the unprecedented public profile the CAG's office - which the average Indian knew little about previously - acquired and the political storms it generated, with many of the audit reports proving troublesome for the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government.
The CAG's reports on the 2010 Commonwealth Games and allocation of licenses for 2G telecom spectrum and coal mining blocks have severely dented the UPA government's image and provided ammunition to the opposition. There have been also suggestions of the CAG has exceeded its brief.
"Nobody in the political class, except for saying that I have political aspirations or that I am looking for a post-retirement career in politics, has actually made any substantive criticism of my work...Saying that I want a political career is an easy allegation to make," Rai said in an interview.
Rai's term as CAG also coincided with the resurgence of the civil society movement against corruption and a call for a change in the governance structure in the country.
"There has been an erosion of people's faith in government. Their confidence in public institutions has declined," Rai said, echoing the popular sentinment in a speech at the Sardar Vallabhai Patel National Police Academy in Hyderabad in 2011.
Rai also saw to it that the CAG reports are prepared in a manner which can be understood by the common man and are made available to the wider public through issue of "Noddy Books", brief compilations of large reports.
Officials in the CAG office told IANS that Rai had taken steps to make audit reports relevant and timely and his initiatives have made an impact among the people.
"He (Rai) insisted on bringing down average time period (for a report)...CAG report is essentially a post-mortem and people tend to lose interest if there is wide time gap.
He made the report more relevant and timely," an official told IANS.
"He has also insisted that the language of audit reports should not be technical and should be reader friendly," the official added.
He said Rai had told his officials to focus on big-ticket expenditure where huge public money was involved and also encouraged them to improve their professional skills.
Rai, who holds a masters' degrees in economics and public administration from the Delhi Scool of Economics and Harvard respectively, also saw that the CAG also works towards building a team to carry out specialised audits and possibly enter the area of environmental auditing.
Another step taken by Rai, a 1972-batch, Kerala-cadre officer of the Indian Administrative Service (IAS), was to improve access of media to his office. He appointed a media advisor in 2010.
B.S. Chauhan, who was appointed media advisor, said there has been a transformation in media coverage of CAG events in the last five years.
"In 2008, the then president inaugurated the CAG building and one newspaper wrote about it. Earlier this month, when the International Centre for Environmental Audit and Sustainable Development was inaugurated in Jaipur, most (Indian) news channels covered it. There were 53 press clippings of Delhi and Jaipur papers," Chauhan said.
Rai's tenure as CAG has drawn parallels in public perception with that of T.N. Seshan as Chief Election Commissioner in the 1990s for ensuring free and fair polls. Chauhan, who also worked with Seshan, said that the people started relating to moves of the EC after Seshan made his office more accessible to media.
Rai, who has made it clear that he is not going to join politics, is also a keen tennis player and has interest in cricket and mountaineering, hobbies that he hopes to pursue in his retirement years.