What's better: a single-member or a three-member CAG?

Last Updated: Tue, Nov 20, 2012 20:11 hrs

A three-member body is not essential, but appointments must be made independently. This may also not be the right time politically

Subhash C Kashyap
Constitutional scholar

“Whether it is a single-member CAG or a three-member CAG, much will depend on the personality of the persons appointed to this high constitutional position. The performance of a single-member CAG can be as good or as bad as of a three-member CAG”

A debate has begun on whether or not the Comptroller and Auditor General of India (CAG) should be made into a three-member body. However, what is important and must be considered carefully for possible reform are the procedures leading to the appointment of the CAG. The manner in which the CAG is appointed is what is more relevant — regardless of whether India has a single-member or a three-member CAG. Certainly, if the procedure for appointment of the official holding the position is completely above board and fair, and generally accepted as being so, there will certainly be fewer questions asked about the role of the CAG.

The machinery for appointment of the CAG should be changed to include the prime minister or the minister of home affairs, leaders of the Parliamentary Opposition in both the houses of Parliament, and maybe the speaker of the Lok Sabha and the deputy chairman of the Rajya Sabha. This is not a necessary or even an exhaustive list. It can, of course, be further discussed and examined as to who should constitute the board or collegium for selection of this important constitutional position. But the most important point to be kept in mind is that the appointment of the CAG should not be considered or seen to be, at any stage, as partisan, or representing the interests of the party in power at that particular time. Because, if a particular dispensation appoints the CAG without a proper system of checks and balances, the chances are that it will be said that the government rewards those civil servants who toed the line when they were in the government.

At present, the government of the day can appoint somebody they like. It is a different matter that there are still people in the position who nevertheless show some spine and courage, like the current incumbent, Vinod Rai. That fact, however, is not a product of the process of selection. As long as the appointment is purely up to the government, we cannot be sure of the independence of the CAG.

Whether the CAG should be single member or multi-member, this also needs to be examined objectively, and in a non-partisan manner. Irrespective of the report of the committee on the subject headed by Justice Shunglu, if the government proposes to convert the institution into a multi-member one – in other words, if the government decides to go for a multi-member CAG as suggested by the Shunglu Report – the first thing they should do is to get in touch with the leaders of the Opposition, most primarily the main Opposition party. Much depends on the motivation and timing of change from a single-member to a multi-member CAG. Questions are bound to arise in public perception as to why is this being thought about at this point in time. If the motives of the government come to be doubted by the people rightly or wrongly, the legitimacy of change is bound to be affected adversely.

Finally, whether it is a single-member CAG or a three-member CAG, much will depend on the personality of the people appointed to this high constitutional position. The performance of a single-member CAG can be as good or as bad as of a three-member CAG. I would personally suggest that this matter is not one that requires any urgent attention.

The present CAG has done the right thing. Indeed, he has done right things.

(As told to Santosh Tiwari)

Jagadish Shettigar
Member of National Executive Committee, Bharatiya Janata Party

“If individual business units are eager to employ auditors to know whether there is any scope to plug loopholes in their business performance, why shouldn’t the govt have the same positive attitude towards the CAG? Why should it resist scope for improving governance?”

The Comptroller and Auditor General of India (CAG) has been rendering yeoman service to Indian parliamentary democracy by performing its duty as the national auditor. From time to time, it has been pointing out violations of norms, if any, in public expenditure and revenue mobilisation, thereby trying to minimise revenue loss to the exchequer. If individual business units are eager to employ auditors to know whether there is any scope to plug loopholes in their business performance, why shouldn’t the government have the same kind of positive attitude towards the CAG? After all, why should any government resist scope for improving governance?

In fact, the CAG office has never been surrounded by a controversy, though revenue leakage has been pointed out many a time in the past. By doing so, the CAG has been actually helping the government or the public sector undertaking units concerned to protect interests of tax payers. Though the opposition parties and media relish any spicy disclosure by the CAG – as in the case of Bofors or, more recently, 2G or Coalgate – it is again in the national interest. The common man feels reassured about use of his money because of transparency in the system.

All of a sudden, a Central minister tried to gauge public opinion by suggesting a proposal to convert the CAG into a multi-member body. If it was merely an individual thinking aloud, there is nothing wrong in debating the issue. Without suspecting the minister’s motive, if one looks at the issue positively, the minister perhaps may deserve a benefit of doubt for his inability to understand the functioning of the institution. When an individual becomes emotional, he can fail to see reason.

First, there are five deputy CAGs — though headed by a single person. In other words, it is a team of experts. The entire machinery consists of thousands of professionals drawn from the Indian Audits and Accounts Service. The top six examine issues only when inputs unearthed by thousands of auditors involved in the process are put before them for a final opinion. In fact, credit should go to the entire machinery for doing its work efficiently. The CAG and his five deputies provide the required leadership. If any individual CAG becomes inconvenient by hogging limelight, he is, in fact, just providing a protective wall for professionals doing their duty.

More importantly, the CAG report is just an exercise of drawing attention towards certain misdealings in financial matters of the country. It is for Parliament to debate those issues. Depending on the government’s follow-up action, of course, people will decide about their own reaction in the very next available opportunity, i.e. through the ballot box.

If multi-membership is the solution for an individual’s likely unreasonable judgement of an issue, the same logic may be extended to other offices such as the chief justice, the army chief, or even the prime minister.

Moreover, this debate has started at a totally inappropriate time. Now that scams within the government were exposed –resulting in a negative public perception – the CAG office has become a target suddenly. Had the government taken findings of the CAG in the right spirit, with the same eagerness as head of a corporate unit treating his auditors’ report, there wouldn’t have been any need to feel uncomfortable. In fact, positive attitude would have attracted positive media coverage and deprived the opposition parties an opportunity to attack the government.

Attitudes like suggesting a multi-member CAG, with ulterior motives, strengthens the public perception that in all such mega scams, there are hidden hands that the government is determined to protect.

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