The government's concerted attack on the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) is more than worrying: it misses the point. And it reveals a clear lack of understanding of what serves India in terms of policy. The peg, of course, is the recently concluded, Supreme Court-ordered 2G auction to replace the licences handed out by the telecom ministry under A Raja in 2008. The low incomes from the auction have led Union ministers to question the CAG's computation of presumptive losses in the earlier spectrum sale. They have called the 2G scam figure of Rs 1.76 lakh crore a myth and said that such calculations sensationalised the issue, in addition to restricting the space in which the government could operate.
Certainly, the CAG came up with figures for presumptive losses that many believed to be an overestimation. But it presented three scenarios depending on which the amount could have been between Rs 57,000 crore and Rs 1.76 lakh crore. Also, even those most concerned by the misallocation of licences by Mr Raja's ministry did not necessarily agree with the calculation of loss. And even those who were willing to believe that losses to the exchequer were large did not necessarily believe that they could be completely unjustified, if held against the health of the telecom sector and the need to increase teledensity.
However, none of these arguments have been made coherently, clearly and consistently by the government. Instead of defending its various policy choices, the government seems to have submitted meekly to valuations it now declares are inflated. Notably lacking is any real explanation as to how the CAG's numbers, however "sensational", prevented the government from designing an auction differently than it did - perhaps taking into account the differences in the financial health of the sector between 2010, when the 3G auctions were conducted, and now. It is almost amusing how the government simultaneously does what it imagines it is being forced into doing - and then turns around to accuse those it says are exerting such force, as exceeding their jurisdiction. Does nobody in the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) see this essential contradiction? That many of its critics are also guilty of the same inconsistencies in their approach – praising the CAG's valuation one minute, criticising the government's reserve price the other – is no excuse.
Assertive constitutional authorities are here to stay, and they will hold government decisions to account - sometimes in ways that lend themselves to sensationalisation by the media. The government needs to distinguish between defending policy and its right to frame policy, and instances of cronyism in the implementation of that policy. Nor should it claim that merely being held to account places pressure on the executive to take decisions it deems are wrong. The government's decisions to set a high reserve price and to structure this 2G auction the way it did were its own, nobody else's. It will also do no good by selectively targeting the presumptive loss figures put out by the CAG and ignoring the report's findings on the gross procedural violations and irregularities that Mr Raja has been accused of committing in 2008. The presumptive loss figures may vary considerably, but the scam brought out by the CAG is not a myth.