Vinod Rai and the ‘notional’ loss to CAG’s credibility

For those who fumed that we needed a Lok Pal to cure all our corruption woes, a decade since 2011, all we know is that corruption has only increased, and some of it is institutionalised

Vinod Rai (Photo Courtesy: Social Media)
Vinod Rai (Photo Courtesy: Social Media)

Ranjona Banerji

The Nation’s Conscience Keeper, Vinod Rai, has apologised to Congress politician Sanjay Nirupam for, well, lying. Is that a polite way of putting it? When your conscience, which holds the nation together, knows that you have told a porky, does it take a court case and a threat of possible pecuniary punishment for your conscience to wake up. Should one indeed apologise if one had spoken the truth?

Rai was the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) of India. So, the nation’s Accountant rather than its conscience keeper. Anyone who has followed even one single corporate scam or even the various international banking disasters knows that accountants are somehow integral to every single act of chicanery – large-scale or small.

Anyway, I quibble. The Conscientious Accountant i.e. Rai had in September 2014 accused Nirupam of being one of a group of Members of Parliament who pressured him to remove former prime minister Manmohan Singh’s name from the 2G spectrum allocation case.

To go back further in time, Rai as CAG had claimed in 2011 that India’s exchequer had suffered an alleged loss of over Rs 30,000 crore and a notional or presumptive loss of Rs 1.76 lakh crore because of corruption in the allocation of 2G spectrum. This report, together with the revelations of the Niira Radia tapes that telecom companies lobbied to choose a telecom minister of their choice, set off a massive campaign against corruption in India and led to the collapse of the second UPA government.

The huge apparent success of India Against Corruption, the rise of AAP and the eventual publicity blitzkrieg that led to the ascension of Narendra Modi as emperor of India find their origin in the Conscience Keeper’s work. The 2G spectrum, the Commonwealth Games, coal auctions all set the blood of middle-class Indians roiling.

Indeed, one cannot argue that there was no corruption at all. But maybe this apology shows that the list of sins thrown at the government of the day was quite exaggerated.

Because, for instance, in the 2G “presumptive loss” case, the loss it turned out was to India’s exchequer and to the telecom industry as a whole, thanks to Rai’s creative arithmetic. Any number of telecom companies shut down and many international companies left India. At the end, the courts fined a few companies and acquitted the accused.

Subsequent spectrum auctions made the exchequer almost no money at all. We now stand with one major telecom company, favoured by the Modi Government, a couple of strugglers and stragglers and no choice for the consumer.

What then does Rai’s apology mean today? As many of us made connections between corruption and the UPA government and many other fumed that we needed a Lok Pal to cure all our corruption woes, a decade since 2011, all we know is that corruption has increased especially since Modi’s diabolical demonetisation policy. Some of it is now institutionalised through electoral bonds and the PM-CARES Fund. As far as Lok Pals are concerned, no one cares any more.

The Conscience Keeper went on to accept several rewards from the new government and sat on many committees and positions. His conscience has perhaps been on the backfoot since, as the coffers and shenanigans of the BCCI remain as confusing as ever despite Rai’s “efforts” on a Supreme Court appointed special committee to run Indian cricket.

Rai’s apology to Nirupam is “unconditional”. Suppose you want to be kind and accept that Rai made a mistake. We all do. Some conscience that takes seven years and a defamation case to wake up. Or one could infer that Rai’s conscience did not want to take on India’s formidable legal system. In which case, what price conscience?

Basically, the evidence now tells us we were sold a dud.

Corruption is a good red-flag word, if you know how to use it. The Congress did not, crippled as it apparently is by earlier cases and allegations. The BJP is brazen about corruption when it is in the dock. It aims at some imaginary shadowy targets and then steps back when the muck falls. The people of India know that corruption is a way of life because they are the ones who visit government offices to get simple and complicated work done.

The tragedy of all this is that we need the CAG, but the Conscience Keeper has knowingly or unwittingly destroyed its credibility.

But it also means that when someone discloses a “notional” loss, do ask them to take a real hike. Up some high mountain far from you.

(Ranjona Banerji is an independent commentator. Views are personal)

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