Why cannot the CAG become a multi-member body?

It has become rather fashionable to suspect every move that is made or not made by the government. Equally, every criticism, right or wrong, logical or devoid of reason, is seen to be politically correct.

There was widespread condemnation of a comment by the minister of state in the prime minister’s office V Narayanswamy on the government mulling the Shunglu committee recommendation to make the super auditing body, the CAG (Comptroller and Auditor General), a multi-member authority as against the one-man show it has been for over 60 years. Opposition parties were quick to jump to the conclusion that the government intended to dilute the powers of the CAG as it has been on the receiving end of its audit reports that have suggested massive corruption in a host of cases, including allotment of coal blocks, issuing of telecom licenses and organisation of the Commonwealth Games.
 Narayanswamy quickly denied he had made the suggestion or that the government was considering a change in the structure of the CAG, but news agency PTI stuck to its story wherein it had quoted the minister.

 Irrespective of what Narayanswamy said or did not say, the fact is the government cannot make such a change without amending the Constitution. And everyone knows that the Congress party is hardly in a position to get its normal legislative agenda passed in both Houses of Parliament, let alone bring in a constitutional amendment.

 But ignoring this basic fact, and refusing to discuss the suggestion, almost everyone has jumped to conclude the government had evil intentions regarding the CAG. The question, in fact, should not be about the government’s motives, which may well be to cut the immense power enjoyed by CAG, but whether such a move was at all possible, given the political ground reality, and if the suggestion had any merits. After all, if any change is at all made, the ‘beneficiary’ will not be the current government, which has only 18 months of tenure left, but future governments.

 It was a similar situation when T N Seshan, chief election commissioner for six years from 1990, started suffering from megalomania after successfully transforming the Election Commission into an effective body that forced political parties to behave more responsibly and democratically. For the first time the EC was seen to be an independent body not subservient to the government of the day and not a mere extension of the law ministry. Although, even under less assertive and presumably less ‘independent’ election commissioners, the mighty Indira Gandhi fell and also lost her personal election in 1977. And winds of political change had swept across many states as far back as in1967.

Diluted and subservient

 It was during Seshan’s tenure in the EC that the government decided to make the commission a multi-member body and at that time too there were misgivings as the move was seen as an effort to dilute his authority. The difference, however, was that in the EC’s case no change was necessary in the constitution, which had visualised a single or a multi-member body, unlike in the case of CAG. Surely, no one can argue that the three-member EC has become ‘diluted’ or more subservient to the ruling party. The other big difference was that not just the ruling Congress party, but a number of other political parties too saw themselves as victims of Seshan’s authoritarian ways.

Checks and balances are the very essence of India’s constitution. The current issue revolves around a one-man authority as against a collegiate. The President mostly acts does on the advice of the government. The prime minister must take decisions in a cabinet, collectively. Important constitutional issues are decided by a bench of three, five or even seven Supreme Court judges.

 Three heads should be better than one. It can only add credibility to any institution. Why then would it be wrong to have a multi-member CAG with some element of a balance? After all, absolute power does corrupt. There is always the danger of a one-man body with enormous powers, misusing it, which is not to suggest that the present CAG, Vinod Rai, has been guilty of that.

But it cannot be ignored that several serious analysts have questioned his ‘arithmetic’ in the 2G spectrum and coal block allotment scandals. In the Coalgate affair, the CAG’s draft report had suggested a Rs 4.7 lakh crore windfall gain to the private sector while his final report pruned that down to Rs 1.86 lakh crore, a small miscalculation!! And in the 2G affair, going by the recent flop spectrum auction, the market determined price might turn out to be a lot lower than what Rai’s report suggested.

But the cognoscenti still believe that CAG is infallible! And everyone who thinks otherwise is a government `chamcha’.

Seshan demonstrated his political ambition and another chief election commissioner M S Gill was inducted into the Rajya Sabha by the Congress party, just as a former CAG T N Chaturvedi (who, incidentally, had issued the report on Bofors that led to Rajiv Gandhi’s downfall), joined the BJP and went on to become a Rajya Sabha MP and a governor. While everyone has the right to aspire to political office, one cannot ignore the real danger of a constitutional authority acting with political motive.

It seems a serious discussion with an open mind has become a strict No No for the argumentative Indian. It is easier to point accusing fingers at the government.

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