Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Exclusive Interview with Vinod Rai, ex-CAG, on Modi Government

Vinod Rai is all set to release his latest book on governance, which is sure to ruffle a few feathers. The former CAG still gets into a combative mood if anyone suggests that CAG reports too contributed to policy paralysis. Seasonal Magazine interviews Vinod Rai on how the Narendra Modi government has been faring.

Ask any politically literate person to name the one personality who facilitated Narendra Modi’s swift rise to power into the PM‘s seat, and there is likely to be a consensus.

No, it is not Advani, who was earlier credited with Modi’s swift rise to become Gujarat’s CM. No, it is not Arun Jaitley or Rajnath Singh, two of the earliest Modi-for-PM voices. Nor is it Subramanian Swamy whose endless litigations against the UPA Government hurt it badly.

And no, it is not Anna Hazare, whose fasting for Lokpal stirred the middleclass imagination. Nor is it Arvind Kejriwal, who by deserting the Delhi CM’s seat, proved that there is no alternative to BJP for the time being. That one most important person who paved the way for Modi is not even Rahul Gandhi, whose poor political skills, however had helped Modi’s campaign.

That one person is undoubtedly Vinod Rai, ex-CAG.

To understand that, one should rewind back to the January of 2008. Markets were on fire. The bull run that started during the late part of the NDA rule, and gathered into a storm during UPA-1, was peaking. Manmohan Singh and Sonia Gandhi seemed invincible.

Vinod Rai took charge as CAG on 7th of January 2008. The very next day, on 8th of January, the market touched its then all time high and started correcting.

What started as a minor technical correction, turned into a huge landslide within a week, triggered by Anil Ambani’s mother-of-all-IPOs for Reliance Power to collect Rs. 11,700 crore, but which mopped up from the market Rs. 1,00,000+ crore temporarily on high-voltage speculation.

Still, Manmohan Singh survived. Elections were still 16 months away.

But halfway into that period, on September 15th 2008, disaster struck in the form of Lehman Brothers’ bankruptcy, and its aftermath, the global economic crisis. Still, Manmohan Singh and Sonia Gandhi survived.

No, not even that, they thrashed the BJP in the 2009 elections, outmanoeuvring Advani’s ambitions and campaign manager Jaitley’s craft.

Manmohan Singh became India’s only PM to return to office after a full term after Nehru, and he looked absolutely invincible.

BJP was in shambles. Nobody, not even Modi was a prime ministerial aspirant then. BJP looked like it has lost the entire plot.

It would continue like that for over an year.

But then would come CAG Vinod Rai’s sensational 2G scam report on 10th November 2010 alleging that Rs. 1,76,000 crore loss has been made to the government.

Instead of debating the CAG on that being a presumptive loss found out on the hindsight on the super-successful 3G auction of 2010, Congress fire-fighters like Kapil Sibal went into overdrive citing the now infamous ’zero-loss’ theory to discredit the CAG report.

It fell flat on its face.

But more was to come from Vinod Rai. August of 2012 saw the tabling of CAG’s even more sensational coal scam report in parliament.

Again, instead of debating the CAG on the fact that none of these beneficiary companies had extracted any worthwhile coal from their allocations, leaders like Dr. Singh and Chidambaram were caught on the wrong foot justifying it on the existing policy.

Just four months later, in December of 2012, Modi was elected for a third time as CM of Gujarat.

But his high degree of alertness as a political leader enabled him to not miss the two gaping holes Vinod Rai had created in UPA’s seemingly impenetrable fort.

The holes were real and they were ever widening thanks due to the efforts of media, judiciary, and the Lokpal movement.

Modi knew that the CAG had created his now-or-never moment in life to start the campaign for becoming PM.

Of course, in what followed during the next two years - in how Modi tamed the dissent to his leadership and in how he used these two scams to full effect in the election campaign - should be left entirely to Modi’s credit.

But it was undoubtedly Vinod Rai who paved the way.

Seasonal Magazine in conversation with Vinod Rai, Ex-CAG:

How did you view the poll results? Was it more of a negative vote for the allegedly scam-ridden UPA government, or a positive vote for BJP and Modi?

I think it was both. There was obviously an anti-incumbency wave after 10 years of one coalition being in power, and there was also an equally strong pro-BJP or NDA wave based on the promises made by its leader Narendra Modi.

As the main force that inadvertently wrecked the prospects of a UPA-3 government by way of your sensational audit reports, do you think Modi government coming to power, vindicates your stand in the 2G and Coal scam reports?

No, it was not the CAG reports alone that wrecked the chances for a UPA-3. I would attribute at least three movements for it. One is obviously the RTI provision getting popular, second is the citizens’ uprising led by Anna Hazare and others, and third is the crucial and bold role played by the media. Even the unfortunate gang rape and death of that  lady at Delhi contributed to the increased vigil by the youth of this country which I think has been a good development. This vigil is for ensuring a high degree of transparency and probity in public life.

How do you view the Modi ministry? Will it be business-as-usual led by politicians, or do you foresee more professionals like Dr. Harsh Vardhan and Gen. VK Singh, or even more independent professionals, getting added to the ministry?

I won’t say it is business-as-usual. There are several younger professionals in the ministry like Piyush Goyal and Nirmala Sitharaman, who both have rich corporate experience behind them. Then there is Dr. Harsh Vardhan as you mentioned. I do expect that more professionals will get added to this ministry eventually.

Did you ever have an invite from BJP for contesting the Lok Sabha polls or for becoming a central minister? In case such an invitation comes, will you accept the same?

No, I never had an invite from BJP for either contesting in the Lok Sabha polls or for becoming a minister. As I have always maintained, politics is not my cup of tea. Any future invitation too is purely hypothetical, but since you asked, if such an invitation comes, I wouldn’t take it up for the time being.

How has been CAG as an institution faring so far, post your exit?

CAG has been faring excellently I would say. It is a great organization and it has got great leadership today.

According to you, how much autonomy will CAG, CVC, Lokpal, CBI, & RBI enjoy under Modi?

Well, I would say that CAG, CVC, & RBI will continue to enjoy full autonomy as today, as they have been designed and built as autonomous organizations. I expect the Lokpal too to follow suit as it is again designed in an autonomous style. Regarding CBI, there is always scope for reservations, as it is a part of the Central Government, and not really autonomous. Even the Supreme Court in its frustration had once expressed it as a ‘caged parrot‘. So for the CBI to be really autonomous, it should be taken out from the government’s control.

Do you have a personal friendship with Modi? Did he consult you on any matters during the election campaign or during the government formation?

No, I don’t have a personal friendship with Mr. Modi. We know each other well, as officially we had to meet many times as CAG and CM. But nothing you can call a personal friendship. And no, he didn’t consult me on any matters during the election campaign or during the government formation.

As CAG, you would have got ample opportunities to interact with the Modi Government in Gujarat. How different was Modi’s Gujarat from the rest of the states from an audit and corrective-action viewpoint?

Like most states, Gujarat too made many mistakes that we found out through our audit investigations. But they were very proactive when we pointed out these shortcomings, and more often than not, we could see cohesive action that resulted in corrective outcomes. But not all of our suggestions were accepted. Whenever they differed with our view, they could reasonably explain those decisions to us, as a policy matter of the government.

As CAG, you also had a close look on Gujarat’s development. How do you assess that?

Two areas where Gujarat has developed in my view, are infrastructure and power. There are very good roads. Development and reach of electric power to all could be facilitated also because they didn’t shy away from increasing the power tariff whenever needed.

One of Modi Government’s repeated assurances for bureaucrats has been that they will be protected from future victimizations including from the audit standpoint. How do you view this trend from an audit and transparency perspective?

I think it has been a good move by Mr. Modi. A senior level secretary would have 35 years of experience behind him or her. Now, what happens when you put such a person under a GoM? His entire experience is wasted. That is why I welcome PM’s move to do away with varied GoMs and empower the bureaucrats directly. I remember with pride the headway I and other IAS officers could make in Kerala, when we were given a free hand, long time back. There is no doubt that Indian Civil Service officers are the most objectively selected managers, based on pure merit, and that they are given one of the best training programs in the world. I do concede that some of them go corrupt or lazy, but what would be the percentage? I would say that 90-95% of IAS officers are very capable and they can do very well. But having said all these, let me also add that such a free hand shouldn’t mean that they shouldn’t be held accountable for their actions. They must be accountable for each and every one of their decisions. It is a balancing act, but it is not impossible.

What are your views on Nehruvian Secularism? Is it any more needed in this country?

Secularism is still very important. But aren’t we all very secular? Some of my best friends are Christians and Muslims. Isn’t Kerala secular? I think it is one of the most secular states in the country where Hindus, Muslims, Christians, and others peacefully coexist. I think secularism should be left to the people to practise. They have been doing that in this country for many decades now. Politicians should leave people alone rather than prompting them to be secular or anti-secular. It shouldn’t be an election plank at all.

What prompted you to take up your current assignment of auditing the Sree Padmanabhaswamy temple? How challenging has been the project so far?

There were a couple of reasons for taking up this temple audit project. First was that the directive came from the Honourable Supreme Court, and I have the greatest respect for this apex institution of our country. Secondly, I have been a frequent visitor to Sree Padmanabhaswamy Temple, and I am also a devotee. So, if my service helps, so be it. But it has been much more challenging than I initially thought it would be. This is mainly because this is not just a classical audit, but I have to produce a set of detailed guidelines on how this temple is to be governed in the coming years. But I have stitched together a fine team of retired officers to help me, and hopefully we should be able to come out with the perfect guidelines.

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