For a quiet, low-profile bureaucrat with a reputation for brutal efficiency, Shashi Kant Sharma sure will not have an easy job when he takes over as comptroller and auditor general (CAG) on Wednesday.Sharma will be stepping into the shoes of ‘cowboy’ Vinod Rai, who as CAG spent the past few years giving the government sleepless nights, busting scams, questioning government policies and peppering otherwise boring reports on public accounts with sensational revelations. Sometimes, even to the extent of quantifying the worth of each scam to the last paisa.
While this helped Rai acquire a larger-than-life image, it will not be easy for Sharma to live up to the ever-increasing public expectation from the CAG office — fitting the image of a crusader trying to clean up the system.
But the question is: Should Sharma try to become another Vinod Rai, who even pushed the boundaries within which the CAG functions by questioning policy decisions?
Shekhar Singh, a public-spirited academic who campaigns for accountability and transparency, suggests India doesn’t need another Vinod Rai.
“What he has done is a good thing. It is sometimes necessary to shake up things, particularly when it is very difficult to crack high-level scams,” says Singh, who has spent years lecturing bureaucrats on governance.
“But you cannot have a process of governance where every once in a while, some agency becomes a cowboy... the new sheriff in town. It is not sustainable,” Singh asserts.
Corruption is a big problem but it is not the only problem facing the country. “A government that doesn’t take decisions could become a bigger problem, he says.
For someone who has overseen the defence establishment, which has suffered due to the executive going slow on decisions, Sharma — who is as well known for being an effective manager as he is for sporting stylish suits — is only too conscious of the pitfalls of trying to be a hero.
It has been argued that the system can take shocks once in a while. But if every CAG or chief election commissioner starts behaving like a Vinod Rai or TN Seshan, there will be problems. It would also persuade the government and politicians alike to knock out a few teeth that such institutions have.
For the record, Rai has always insisted the CAG’s office under his watch may have stepped on a few toes, but it never overstepped its mandate.
The CAG reports, say on the 2G spectrum allocation, asserted right at the beginning that the body conceded it was the government’s prerogative to formulate policy and the auditors were just examining its implementation. But then, that didn’t stop the auditor from pointing out how a bad policy might have cost the exchequer a “presumptive loss” of R1.76 lakh crore (1,760 billion).
That was a decision which led to murmurs within the Indian Audit and Accounts Service — that make up the CAG — if they were indeed trained to appreciate the complexities of policy formulation or they should just stick to accounting and auditing alone. The debate is still on.