Mint was the first newspaper to highlight that the auditor originally assigned the task of quantifying the losses on account of 2G spectrum allotment in 2008 had said it wasn’t possible to do so—the only number that could be arrived at, he said, was around Rs.2,700 crore on the basis of inflation.
That number was, of course, far less than the Rs.1.76 trillion number that the Comptroller and Auditor General of India’s (CAG’s) report finally carried.
The process by which that huge and inflated number was arrived at may have been attributable to current Comptroller and Auditor General Vinod Rai’s zeal—he said in an interview that he had instructed his auditors to go after the big fish—or his views on the government which he has in recent months, aired publicly, but, in truth, it is entirely in keeping with the theoretical way in which the auditor works.
Indeed, in 2000, CAG criticized the government’s decision to move from a licence fee regime for telcos to a revenue-sharing one. Back then, India had less than 10 million mobile telephony connections and the move to a revenue-sharing regime, under the New Telecom Policy 1999, is widely credited for catalyzing the rapid growth the sector saw between 2000 and 2008. Indeed, India’s teledensity rose from 2.32% in 1999 to 33% in 2008 (it is 80% currently).
I remember an interim report and a public interest litigation that followed the move, alleging that it had resulted in a loss of around Rs.60,000 crore to the government. The department of telecommunications must have responded in some fashion because the only report I can find on CAG’s site is a final one that, while being highly critical of the move, refrains from putting a number to the notional loss the government had suffered (yes, CAG’s always been big on notional losses). The public interest case, too, went nowhere.
Thus, while the current CAG, who has fallen into the habit of wearing his rectitude on his sleeve (a dangerous trait for anyone including journalists because the self-righteous arrogance of honesty is just a step away from a complete loss of objectivity), may like to think that he is different (and better) than those who came before him, the truth is that this is what government auditors have always done.
That means any criticism of the Comptroller and Auditor General isn’t just unwarranted, but also meaningless.
In 2000, the government of the day (run by the Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance) stuck to its guns.
In the 2G controversy, the government seemed keen to distance itself from the controversy even when it was evident that there had been several irregularities and possibly wrongdoing in the allotment of spectrum in 2008. But doing so didn’t make the controversy go away—like it believed. Instead, it blurred the lines between policy and its implementation. Litigation followed and the top court in the land seemed to simply take up the cue so generously offered by the government. That may not have happened had the government acknowledged the irregularities and sought to delineate these from the policy itself (no matter however imperfect the latter may have been).
The government would do well to introspect on this, its original failure to defend a policy and distinguish it from irregularities in implementation, instead of questioning the auditor like it has been doing after the failure of the auction of 2G spectrum last week.
After all, CAG did its job, the government didn’t do its.