Sometimes, what separates the seemingly innocuous from the sinister is the context. At another time and in another situation, Minister of State in the Prime Minister’s Office V. Narayanasamy could have gotten away with his statement that the Central government was considering making the Comptroller and Auditor General a multimember body. After all, the Centre is sitting on a report by the committee headed by former CAG V.K. Shunglu, which went into the charges of corruption in the conduct of the 2010 Commonwealth Games, recommending such a course of action. But not now, not when the government has been at the receiving end of a series of damning reports by the CAG on 2G spectrum, the Commonwealth Games and coal allocations. After his remark stirred up a national controversy, the Minister did make a feeble effort to distance himself from the news report, saying he was “misquoted” and that he had not specifically replied to any question on the constitution of the CAG. But, by then, he had already set off alarm bells in the ranks of the Opposition, and among anti-corruption activists and the rest of the civil society. Not surprisingly, almost everyone smelt a conspiracy to undermine the independent functioning of the CAG, and interpreted the move as directed at the incumbent, Vinod Rai, whose term is not due to end before 2014.
Whether or not Mr. Narayanasamy intended his remarks as a trial balloon to gauge public opinion, the hostile reaction he has provoked should serve as adequate warning to the government against pushing ahead with any such radical restructuring of the supreme audit institution of India. Indeed, any change in the nature and structure of the CAG is unwarranted in the current context. Whether or not a multimember body is better than a single-member body is open to debate, and any change should be preceded by wide-ranging consultations. An isolated recommendation in one of the reports of a committee is surely no reason to bring about a change that could have far-reaching implications for the CAG. Nothing in the functioning of the current CAG calls for such radical reconstitution. Instead, the government would do well to strengthen India’s premier audit body, allowing it to function with greater autonomy and freedom and with an updated mandate that unambiguously covers public-private partnerships (PPPs) and the use of public monies by non-governmental organisations. If at all there is a case for any change, it is in making the appointment of the CAG more transparent, free from any sort of political considerations. In all else, the government must stay its hand.