Clash of interest

The questions raised about the appointment of defence secretary Shashi Kant Sharma as the new Comptroller and Auditor-General of India (CAG) can not be dismissed as arising from a compulsively fault-finding mindset. Sharma took over on Wednesday from Vinod Rai who has completed his term.

There is merit in the argument that there is a conflict of interest between Sharma’s responsibilities as the CAG and his tenure for the past ten years in the defence ministry. The CAG is required to audit defence purchases among others and so he will have to scrutinise important defence deals and other expenditure decisions in which he had  a major role. There is a high level of impropriety in this and an element of clash of interest in his future work as the CAG. Sharma’s appointment is likely to be challenged in the court on this ground.

The UPA government’s selection of persons for important constitutional positions has been controversial and has rightly invited criticism. The norms of suitability and wide acceptability have not always been followed in most cases. Its appointment of PJ Thomas as the Central Vigilance Commissioner was disapproved by the Supreme Court. It appointed Ranjit Sinha as  the CBI director in spite of objections by the leader of the opposition. The government has also rejected the reservations of  opposition leaders over the selection of former Supreme Court judge Cyriac Joseph as a member of the national human rights commission. The power of appointment rests with the government but it needs to be exercised with fairness and sensitivity to the views of  those outside the government.  Public interest should have precedence over political  considerations.

The CAG is an important constitutional institution. Ambedkar had felt that the CAG’s duties are even more important than those of the judiciary. Vinod Rai  made the office an effective institution as a vigilant watchdog  with a number of audit reports that exposed the corruption and inadequacies in the working of the government.  He strengthened the office much the way TN Sehan asserted the independent status of the Election Commission. It was inconvenient to the government but provided the checks which are necessary for the system. Public offices and the individuals who hold them have a dynamic and reactive relationship, and the credibility and image of both are mutually reinforcing.

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