Instead of the present opaque system, a high-level, broad-based Committee should be formed to choose the country’s “most important” constitutional functionary
In May this year, the present Comptroller and Auditor-General will retire on completing 65 years of age. Given the Government of India’s exasperation with him, it seems very probable that for the next CAG, it will look for someone who is likely to be bland and ignorable, and quite possibly someone who will actively weaken the rigours of accountability. That will be a travesty of what the Constitution-makers had in mind. How is that deplorable contingency to be avoided?
The answer is that the selection of the CAG must not be the exclusive prerogative of the executive government but must be entrusted to a high-level, broad-based Selection Committee. Such a course is clearly a very obvious one to follow, but it appears that the government does not consider any such change in the selection procedure necessary.
No formal criteria
The argument is that the existing system has been working well; that the CAGs, by whichever ruling party chosen, have been able to function independently; and that no change is called for. However, does a system in fact exist? There is no carefully formulated job description, no formally laid down criteria, no clear procedures for a long list and a short list, and no Selection Committee. What then is the system? It is entirely an internal process within the government; no one outside knows what that process is; from the Finance Secretary, Cabinet Secretary and the Principal Secretary to the Prime Minister, some names emerge and reach the Prime Minister; and a recommendation is sent to the President. Suddenly one morning the newspapers announce that a particular person has been selected as CAG. Parliament and the people of the country have no idea at all as to how the principal instrument of accountability is chosen.
Is the ‘system’ working well? On what grounds can one say so? There have been outstanding, good, and indifferent CAGs. One can hardly infer a functioning system from these results, much less one that is working well.
The need for a high-level, broad-based Selection Committee has already been accepted for the selection of the Central Vigilance Commissioner and the National Human Rights Commissioners. On what possible grounds can it be held that such a procedure is not appropriate for the selection of the CAG? It is in fact particularly called for in this case, considering the great and crucial importance of the institution of CAG of India. The point is familiar and need not be laboured, but it may be useful to remind ourselves very briefly that the Constitution-makers chose to include the position in the Constitution; guaranteed his (her) independence by providing protection against removal except by impeachment; and prescribed for the CAG an oath of office that requires the functionary to “uphold the Constitution and the laws” and not just act in accordance with them. It may also be recalled that Dr. B.R. Ambedkar considered the CAG the most important functionary in the Constitution, even more important than the judiciary. The CAG performs the most crucial function of enforcing the financial accountability of the Executive to Parliament, and through Parliament to the people. It follows that the selection of the enforcer of accountability should not be left to the discretion of those whose accountability he or she has to enforce.
What should be the composition of the proposed Selection Committee? Having regard to the multiple dimensions of the position of CAG, the following is a suggested composition:
• Prime Minister (Chairman);
• Finance Minister;
• Leader of the Opposition in the Lok Sabha;
• Speaker of the Lok Sabha;
• Chief Justice of India, if the CJI is willing to be included, and if not, a very distinguished legal luminary.
For an open system
Suggestions that criteria and procedures should be laid down for the selection of the CAG are sometimes questioned on the ground that the Constitution does not say so. That is an absurd objection. The Constitution mandates the post; an appointment has to be made to that post; an appointment implies a selection; and selection implies criteria and procedure. The appointment cannot be made by draw of lots. In any case, some kind of opaque internal system is apparently being followed at present. The suggestion is merely that it be replaced by a formal, well-formulated, open system.
Once we start on the formulation of a system of selection, several questions will arise. A full discussion of those questions will require a separate paper. Without a detailed discussion, this article will merely put down a few categorical, un-argued statements for consideration.
(1) What kind of person should the Committee look for? Keeping in mind the kind and range of responsibilities involved, the CAG should clearly have:
• professional knowledge and expertise in accounts and audit;
• a willingness to point the finger at irregularity, impropriety, imprudence, inefficiency, waste, and loss of public funds, at whatever level this occurs, but tempered by a scrupulous judiciousness in criticism and comment;
• the ability to weigh the legal and constitutional aspects of some of the issues that come before him;
• a capacity for understanding complex technical, contractual commercial, managerial, or economic matters and forming careful judgments, particularly when dealing with large government schemes or appraisals of public enterprises;
• management abilities for running the vast Department under him; and
• underlying all these, a passionate concern for rectitude and propriety (‘fire in the belly’), and impeccable and fierce personal integrity, accompanied by much tact and wisdom.
It will certainly be very difficult to find a person who combines all those elements; but the selectors must keep that ideal picture before them, and the person selected should meet at least a significant part of the above requirements.
(2) The criterion (now prevailing) that the person to be selected should have been a Secretary to the Government of India is irrelevant and should be abandoned. Indeed, having been a Secretary to the Government should perhaps be a disqualification because of the possibility of a conflict of interests.
(3) The fact that this is a constitutional position should not be allowed to obscure the fact that it is also a specialised, professional one that cannot easily be filled by a generalist. It is impossible to imagine a non-IFS officer being appointed as Foreign Secretary, or a non-railwayman as Chairman, Railway Board; appointing a generalist administrator as CAG should be equally unthinkable except in a rare case. The constitutional status of the position does not alter that logic.
(4) The retiring or recently retired Deputy CAGs in the IAAS should be the first source; it is only if an exceptionally able officer is not available from that source that other sources should be considered, i.e., the IAS and Central Services other than the IAAS; and failing all these, non-government sources.
The reasons for that order of preference are not gone into here. It must, however, be mentioned that the implicit general assumption that the next CAG, like the last six CAGs, must be an IAS officer, causes serious harm to departmental morale. Consider the high standing of the Indian Audit Department in the international community of Supreme Audit Institutions. Consider also the present CAG’s frequent praise — high praise — of the quality of the personnel of the Department. If such good work can be done by the Department, is it credible that in the last six selections of the CAG, the choice could never once fall on an IAAS officer? The sad fact is that the post of CAG has become virtually a cadre post for the IAS, and there seems to be a systematic exclusion of the IAAS. This is indefensible on any ground and needs to be remedied. This implies no reflection on any individual CAG. In particular, this writer holds the present CAG in the highest regard, and believes that he has been an outstanding incumbent of that high constitutional office.
The above suggestions are not offered in a dogmatic spirit. What is important is that the issues raised in this article should be pondered by all those who are concerned about the effective functioning of this venerable institution, even if that pondering leads to conclusions different from those stated here.
(Ramaswamy R. Iyer is a former IAAS officer)