India's chief auditor leads battle against corruption

 

New Delhi

He was supposed to be a faceless accountant, but he has become a household name in India and perhaps the central actor in the nation's battle against corruption.

The slim, silver-haired Vinod Rai is the government's chief auditor, a man appointed on the recommendation of the prime minister more than five years ago. Now he has turned into one of the government's greatest scourges, a hero to many but a source of controversy to others.

Rai's reports accusing the government of losing tens of billions of dollars of potential revenue — by giving away natural resources to private companies for a pittance — have dominated news headlines for the past two years.

They have also supplied information for a nationwide anti-corruption movement, helped send a government minister, senior bureaucrats and several business leaders to jail, and damaged the government's image beyond repair.

During a rare conversation in his office, he first admitted and then denied that the government might regret having appointed him, before concluding with a smile that "yes, probably they are surprised in some ways" by the way he has gone about his job.

Surprise would an understatement, for the hard-hitting reports of India's comptroller and auditor general (CAG) have prompted nothing short of fury within India's government and strident attacks from senior members of the ruling Congress party.

Along with a vibrant media, an activist Supreme Court and an increasingly vociferous civil society, his supporters say Rai has made his office into a powerful force for accountability and transparency in modern India.

"This heralds the start of a completely new era of government being forced to become more transparent," said Independent lawmaker Rajeev Chandrasekhar, who said previous incumbents of the CAG's office have often been "poodles of the government."

After a lifetime in India's bureaucracy, the 64-year-old Rai himself admits to a few surprises since being plucked from the Finance Ministry to take over a sprawling network of 63,000 employees, including accountants in every state of India.

"The lack of integrity at high levels of government — certainly it has come as a surprise to me," he said, referring to the amounts of money involved as "mind-boggling."

"The man in the street talks about it but does not have first- or secondhand knowledge of it," he said. "Today, what's happened is citizen groups have come center stage and are seeking a certain level of public accountability, and I think we all owe it to them to bring these things center stage."

Rai is not the first auditor-general in Indian history to bring a government to its knees — a CAG report into huge kickbacks in the purchase of army field howitzers from a Swedish company contributed to the 1989 election defeat of Rajiv Gandhi's government.

But Rai has undoubtedly interpreted his mandate more aggressively than his predecessors, going beyond narrow financial audits to examine how government policies have performed.

His role, he explained, is to oversee government activities and spending, and more broadly to make India's executive accountable to parliament. Once appointed, the CAG enjoys constitutional protection from dismissal, except through a process of impeachment — and he has used that power to devastating effect.

A 2010 report into the telecom sector said the government had foregone billions of dollars in potential revenue by giving away mobile phone network licenses on a first-come, first-served basis, rather than by auctioning them to the highest bidder.

This year, the CAG reported that allocation of coal-bearing land to private companies — again, through an opaque process rather than a competitive auction — had cost the government potential revenues of around $30 billion, despite concerns expressed by the senior bureaucrat in the coal ministry that those private companies were making "windfall profits" from the process.

Most damaging of all, the report revealed a paper trail that led to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh himself, suggesting he was uncomfortable with the process but had not acted decisively to make it more transparent.

Singh, not usually one to betray his emotions, told Rai to mind his own business, accusing him of overstepping his mandate, and complained that the media and the CAG — two of the government's biggest critics — get away with "murder" these days.

Congress party spokesman Digvijay Singh went further, accusing Rai of harboring political ambitions of his own.

Rai shrugs off most of the criticism as a "reflex" defense mechanism from the government, one that just shows he is doing his job.

"It didn't disappoint me, certainly not," he said. "If we call them names, they have every right to call us names. The only thing different now is the stridency of the personal attack, which attributes motives and quite often political aspirations."

Rai is not scared of creating headlines, complaining at the World Economic Forum last month about the appalling "brazenness" with which government decisions were taken.

His style is not to everyone's taste.

Former solicitor general Harish Salve accuses the CAG of "blurring the lines between exposing corruption and revisiting government policy," something he says that must remain the prerogative of the government. Independent economists have questioned the assumptions on which the CAG has based his estimates of losses to the government.

But to criticize the CAG on these grounds is to miss the broader point, say commentators like Pratab Bhanu Mehta, president of the Center for Policy Research.

"In the medium to long run, these [reports] will make the government stronger, not weaker, because it will be forced to ask the right questions," he wrote in the Indian Express after the coal report was tabled in parliament in August. "You can contest the CAG's numbers. But the reports, even if they do not say it, leave us in no doubt the government is a rotting ancient regime."

Rai's six-year term ends in May, but he said he feels confident that pressure from the media and civil society will prevent the government appointing a more pliable figure in his place.

"These strident attacks have evoked a very automatic defense mechanism in the department," he said. "So it's not a case of taking on one guy, it is a question of taking on 63,000 guys."

Under the unforgiving gaze of this new transparency, India's bureaucracy and government have sometimes seemed paralyzed, with even senior officers reluctant to take responsibility or make decisions. Rai dismissed this as "an alibi for non-performance," and said the government would learn to make decisions that withstand public scrutiny.

"It's quite a watershed," he said. "I am very upbeat, very bullish on this. This was a churning which was necessary in society, and it has come."

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
News
people
News
A survey carried out by Sainsbury's Finance found 20% of new university students have never washed their own clothes, while 14% cannot even boil an egg
science...and the results are not as pointless as that sounds
News
politicsIs David Cameron trying to prove he's down with the kids?
News
Dominique Alderweireld, also known as Dodo de Saumure, is the owner of a string of brothels in Belgium
newsPhilip Sweeney gets the inside track on France's trial of the year
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
News
Cumberbatch was speaking on US television when he made the comment (Getty)
people
Life and Style
tech
Arts and Entertainment
Tom DeLonge, Travis Barker and Mark Hoppus of Blink-182 pictured in 2011.
musicBassist Mark Hoppus and drummer Travis Barker say Tom Delonge is 'disrespectful and ungrateful'
Sport
football
Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'
tvBroadchurch series 2, episode 4, review - contains spoilers
Sport
cyclingDisgraced cycling star says people will soon forgive his actions
News
Britain's Prince Philip attends a Garden Party at Buckingham Palace in London
people
Arts and Entertainment
Ed Sheeran will play three sell-out gigs at Wembley Stadium in July
music
News
i100
News
Lena Dunham posing for an official portrait at Sundance 2015
people
Arts and Entertainment
Under the skin: Sarah Kane in May 1998
theatreThe story behind a new season of Sarah Kane plays
Arts and Entertainment
Preening: Johnny Depp in 'Mortdecai'
filmMortdecai becomes actor's fifth consecutive box office bomb
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Lift Repairs Sales Account Manager

£28000 - £32000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An exciting new opportunity has...

Recruitment Genius: Photographer / Floorplanner / Domestic Energy Assessor

£16000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Photographer/ Floor planner /...

Recruitment Genius: Group Sales Manager - Field Based

£21000 - £22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Located on the stunning Sandban...

Ashdown Group: Assistant Management Accountant - Part Qualified CIMA / ACCA

£30000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: We are recruitment for an Assistan...

Day In a Page

Woman who was sent to three Nazi death camps describes how she escaped the gas chamber

Auschwitz liberation 70th anniversary

Woman sent to three Nazi death camps describes surviving gas chamber
DSK, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel

The inside track on France's trial of the year

Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel:
As provocative now as they ever were

Sarah Kane season

Why her plays are as provocative now as when they were written
Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of a killing in Iraq 11 years ago

Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of another killing

Japanese mood was against what was seen as irresponsible trips to a vicious war zone
Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

The enemy within

People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

Autumn/winter menswear 2015

The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore
'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

Army general planning to come out
Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

What the six wise men told Tony Blair

Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

25 years of The Independent on Sunday

The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

Homeless Veterans appeal

As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

Smash hit go under the hammer

It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

The geeks who rocked the world

A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea