To paraphrase a best-selling manifesto, a spectre is haunting the government—the spectre of the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) of India. The government’s ire at that institution is matched only by its utter inability to deal with reports filed with alarming regularity, each opening a fresh can of worms—the 2G scam, the S-band spectrum embarrassment, the coal allocation scam and the gas audit that was not to be being examples.
The inability of the government to deal adequately with CAG’s body blows, which some may argue only represent best efforts to fulfil a constitutionally assigned task, is linked to lack of capacity on four fronts: technical know-how, process adherence, communication capability and moral integrity.
Technical know-how relates to the ability of the government’s policymaking machinery to formulate policies that are conceptually well-thought through, empirically supportable and anchored in an awareness of international best practices. Further, this capability must extend to creating a policy implementation road map that is carefully designed in order to achieve the goals of managed change.
As of now, the government’s capacity in this regard is abysmal. The main lacunae relate to its economic and legal functions. These services have been unable to bring the government up to speed with market-oriented thinking, a crucial necessity in an age of liberalization. The policymaking approach remains focused on cost structures in production, rather than on market demand and the dynamics of innovation.
Even the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India, a sector-specific regulator, is poorly staffed with economists and legal experts, although its cadre of engineers from the Indian Telecommunications Service is robust. The fast-changing technological landscape in telecommunications, energy and biotechnology requires an army of analysts who understand both the intricacies of new technologies and the relevant application of principles from economics and social science. While the 2G report of CAG could have been contested along many dimensions
(for instance, the applicability of 3G prices to 2G spectrum), the responses, by and large, indicate poor application of mind. The infamous zero-loss claim though probably cannot be attributed to any technical bureaucrat, being the brain wave of the concerned minister alone.
Beyond the intellectual aspects of policy formulation, the policymaking and policy implementation process needs to be adhered to. The process of awarding licences in 2008—for instance, finalizing policy in a meeting of the Telecom Commission in which members from other ministries were not invited, is an example of a slip that the government cannot afford to make with a vigilant CAG.
The third leg of the stool is effective communication. This includes public consultation during the policymaking process and effective communication to stakeholders about policy formulation and implementation.
But beyond the ability to put forth policy in a conceptually sound manner, implement it with watertight processes and communicate it effectively through the policy lifecycle, is the imperative of moral integrity. One could argue that no one knows the bewildering nuts and bolts of policy and of processes better than the senior civil servants and they could easily defend any position no matter how self-serving it might be for a small group of vested interests. We should be grateful that the gaffes of our experienced and inexperienced political leaders gave room for their wrongdoings to be investigated. There could be many others who carry on merrily with not a shred of evidence coming into the open because of the sophistication of their ways.
As long as all parties involved in leadership positions (and not just politicians) do not exercise voluntary restraint in their accumulation of wealth, there will be a market for scams which the media will feed off on, and which will make reports of agencies such as CAG explosive. In such an environment, good men in politics will be regarded as apologists for the heists of their peers.
Given that the system is deeply compromised and that power in a democracy flows from the people, one can perhaps not hope that change will come from the top. It is here that movements such as those of Anna Hazare and Arvind Kejriwal have so much relevance.
Indeed, all the weaknesses of the government are interlinked—moral flexibility leads to a fear of bringing in experts who can challenge narrowly conceived policy, it also leads to process manipulation and reflects in indefensible communication. One looks for honourable acts that could redeem our leaders, transparent deeds that would hoist them from the muck and the muckraking their class has fallen into.
The fault, dear leaders, is not in CAG, but in yourselves—you who have fallen so far from the perch to which you have been raised by citizens.
Rohit Prasad is an associate professor of economics at MDI, Gurgaon.