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The office of the government’s accountant—the rather heavy-sounding Comptroller & Auditor General of India—had had its moments of glory before: the Mundhra jeep scandal, the Bofors scam, Coffingate. But it took the 2G spectrum allocation scandal under the nose of Manmohan Singh and the figure of ‘Rs 1,76,000 crore loss’ to give it a near-mythical status. Further hints of gigantic financial transgressions in the parcelling out of natural resources like coal, spectrum, land and gas lent ballast to the anti-corruption movement under Anna Hazare, which the BJP later turned into an anti-Congress one, resulting in a change of government. As he puts his version out between covers, Vinod Rai spoke to Sunit Arora and Lola Nayar. Excerpts:
How was it getting the experiences as CAG out of your system?
It was pretty easy. Initially I did not want to write or speak about it. It was much later – around six months after retirement -- when I saw lot of things being thrown out into the media space in a very perfunctory fashion. I felt some of these things need to be brought out. Also, how much of circulation do audit reports have?
Do you feel the PM let the CAG down when it came to exposures like 2G, Coalgate, Reliance’s KG basin?
In KG basin, the PM’s remarks about Reliance in a conversation do not nail him directly, but in 2G and coal there is no way he can shirk responsibility. In 2G all the letters written by A Raja were to him and he was replying to those letters. I got no reply to any letter I wrote to him. On one occasion when I called on him, the PM said I hope you don’t expect a reply from me, whereas he was replying to Raja twice a day. So how can he be not held responsible for the onus of that decision? The two template responses of PM produced in court clearly lay out that he knew what Raja was proposing to do.
What was your understanding of the PM’s psychology considering many revered him as an elder statesman?
You cannot have the nation being subjugated to the state; and the state being a coalition of political parties. The belief was that good politics makes good economics too. But does good politics mean just staying in power? Integrity is not just financial; it is intellectual integrity; it is professional integrity. You have an oath of allegiance to the constitution and that is important.
The PM blamed the scams on the compulsions of coalition politics.
You cannot sacrifice everything at the altar of trying to ensure the coalition remains in power. That was his worry.
What did the PM say when you informed him about the Rs 176,000 crore figure for 2G loss?
When I told him on 16 November, he said the way I had done my computation of figures is not the right way.
What did you mumble to him in response?
I told him ‘Sir, these are the econometric methods that you have taught us’. This was sitting on the stage of Vigyan Bhavan.
Do you think Manmohan Singh tried to rope in the finance minister P. Chidambaram into the 2G matter after it broke?
Yes, but not before that.
While the PM was making statements against you, many of the UPA ministers were openly attacking you…
Did anyone behave like an elder statesman and stand up and say, ‘Look you guys should not be saying this’? Pranab Mukherjee was saying it, but the PM never said it. Why? It means he believed what they were saying on his behalf or they had the license to say it. I told him (the PM) you are a statesman and not a politician. Leaving aside the other thing of shooting the messenger, you can’t be saying it in the kind of language they used regularly. There were three or four guys who were orchestrating it all the time.
What was the lowest low when you were being attacked?
What more could they say than ‘that bhumiar from Ghazipur’? Jairam (Ramesh) couldn’t have said it if he knew he would be pulled up. How can you say something like that to a newspaper and get away with. There were worse things that have happened. Today if I say that they did everything to investigate my past let alone my wife’s, they will deny it.
Was your phone tapped ever?
100 per cent. Of course, it was being tapped. I directly asked the director intelligence whether you have got all my numbers. He replied, “I have one of your mobile numbers. Do you have any other number?” I told him I have another number which I will give to you.
During the entire trouble period, was there at any stage any political signal from the Gandhi family or the political establishment that was reassuring?
I did not get a single reassuring signal either from the political machinery or the government, except one or two statements from Pranab Mukherjee.
Did you get support from the BJP?
Anybody who was across the spectrum supported the CAG. There were a couple of MPs (who I cannot name as I was not there) in the PAC who used language which was not very good and was taken offence by the chairman and other members also. The chaiman wrote to the speaker that all these things should not be done. But no reply came.
What did you make of the zero-loss defense?
“When the PM said my way of computing Rs 176,000 crore was wrong, I said these were econometric methods he’d taught us.”
The zero-loss business is a very adventurous and ill advised approach to try and protect the government. They took a lot of time to think it through and when they realized in less than a month that it has bombed then they had to hastily withdraw. At his press conference (the PM) agreed that the goal posts had been shifted and the rules and regulations changed – he agreed with CAG on two counts. It is on the assessments of the loss that “we don’t agree”, whereas we had given presumptive loss. Every time I thank my stars that I wrote it myself that there has been a loss to the national exchequer, which can hardly be denied. The quantum of loss can be debated.
Now that the Supreme Court has come up with observations about the allocation of coal blocks do you feel vindicated?
I don’t think at any point of time we were looking for vindication as we were sure of what we have written because every word we wrote was backed by a document.
In Praful Patel’s case you have attacked him directly, but in the Reliance case you have not directly taken them on.
In Reliance case, no decision was taken at the minister’s level. This he (Mukesh Ambani) was running it himself. Why have I quoted (IAS officer) Sunil Arora’s letter? It is unheard of in our kind of set up where you have a sitting bureaucrat taking on his own minister. On third of this month he finally joined here a secretary.
Do you think bureaucrats will have a better run in the present regime?
I should believe so. I will tell you why. I became a secretary to the GOI after 35 years of ‘ghisoying’ (slogging) in the bureaucracy. I don’t say I am the brightest guy in the world. Only 20 per cent of my batch mates have become secretaries so I must be above average in my work and integrity. A GOM of six people will sit on top of me and take decisions. It is damn good for me as you are giving me a safe exit, absolving me of any of the decisions you have taken. But first-time MPs are going to be sitting in judgment of the decisions I have given. You are misplacing accountability. You are not giving me any professional credit for my years of experience, let alone wisdom. What is the transparency of a GOM taking a decision? Nothing. Once you have GOMs making decision you are introducing policy paralysis. Imagine 82 GOMs! What for?
If you are going to replace GOM with PMO are we going to be unleashing another kind of beast?
Today it is my version with the PMO. Hold me accountable for what I am saying. Maybe another beast is being unleashed, I don’t know. But bureaucrats say today that there is at least independence of thinking. Independence of writing on the paper is there even though it may be overruled at the PMO. So what? Please understand, and I can say this from the rooftop, this is parliamentary democracy. The one finally accountable is the political executive.
Looking back in hindsight do you think this government would have been in power without you?
I don’t think so. Let me put it right for those people who spoke about my conspiracy with the BJP. In 2009 when I started the audit of 2G was the time when UPA II had just taken charge for the second term. BJP started to rally around only towards second half of 2013 when this gentleman (Narendra Modi) came out of the woodwork.
But you did rock the UPA government?
Yes, but that is okay. I am asking you a direct question – if the figure of Rs 176,000 crore had not been there how many of you would have taken note of the report?
Was the intention to put out a sexy figure?
No, I wanted to put out an alarm signal that this was just a tip of the iceberg.
Didn’t these scams largely take place during UPA-1?
Yes. The Delhi Airport happened in the second half as also the UMPP. These people (the Congress) has alleged that I have exposed these things because of my closeness to BJP. But surprisingly I don’t know anybody in BJP.
Under the BJP government, where do we stand now? Already there is talk of pressure on various institutions.
I have a firm belief after seeing what has happened in the last five to six year is that there is no way that our institutions can be trampled upon. No government even if it has a big majority. This is based on fact. Which is the institution that is being trampled upon? Judiciary? Tell me how is the collegiums approved by the government in any way inferior to the collegiums of judges? How different or inferior is it from the system in the US? That there is a certain rot in judiciary, is it not a fact of life? Anything insular – I am talking about the RAW, the IB, the armed forces and now the judiciary -- breeds inefficiency, breeds nepotism.
The common refrain of the establishment, whether Congress or BJP, is that reports like yours put a valid argument against such auditing?
Look you need to talk about global investors. You need to talk about global companies which participated in the bidding for KG basin and which participated in the ultra mega power projects to hear what they have to say. They say we were kept out (by the state). There is no audit report. All of them are subject to audit everywhere in the world.
If you had been the prime minister and someone had brought the CAG report to you, how would you have reacted?
I would have said that I would hold it in abeyance for the time being in the belief that I was damaging my politics in letting this unfold
You are not a politician. Manmohan Singh was not a born politician. If you could see this, why couldn’t Manmohan Singh?
Somewhere he got overawed by the compulsions of coalition politics. If you are in politics and become the head of a government, your training in Oxford or Cambridge has nothing to do with it. It is ultimately robust commonsense applied in a particular systemized fashion that contains administration. You just have to have your antenna in place to be able to pick up whatever is there in the environment. And then with alacrity respond to it. But your response is the main thing. Their (UPA’s) response was tempered by politics.
A slightly shorter, edited version appears in print