The Aam Aadmi Party on Tuesday questioned the UPA’s “arbitrary” selection of Defence Secretary Shashi Kant Sharma as new Comptroller and Auditor-General (CAG). Incumbent Vinod Rai retires on Wednesday. Mr. Sharma has had a long tenure in the Defence Ministry in different key positions.

At a press conference here, AAP member and lawyer Prashant Bhushan alleged a “conflict of interest” as Mr. Sharma was the Director-General (Acquisition) in the Defence Ministry when controversial deals such as Agusta Westland helicopters and Scorpene submarines took place.

He said the government’s move was “illegal, unconstitutional” and against the principle of “institutional integrity” laid down by the Supreme Court for a “watchdog institution” such as the CAG. The appointment was “liable to be struck down” on the same ground as the appointment of P.J. Thomas as the Central Vigilance Commissioner while he had a charge sheet pending against him. The AAP would seriously consider challenging it in a court of law, he said.

“How can a person audit defence purchases cleared during his tenure? Will he be fair in conducting an audit of his own actions,” Mr. Bhushan asked. “Giving such a long tenure to a bureaucrat in a single ministry is unusual. Clearly bureaucrats who are close to the government are helped.”

While appreciating the ‘fearless’ role played by many bureaucrats such as Mr. Vinod Rai, Mr. Bhushan criticised the lack of transparency in the selection of watchdogs such as the CAG who were handling crucial audit matters such as the KG-D6 basin case, involving Reliance Industries.

Citing a RTI disclosure, the AAP member said the government itself had admitted that there was no formal system for appointment/selection of CAG, which was done only on basis of past conventions and practices. “There was no independent selection committee or collegium The decision [to select Mr. Sharma] is based on a note moved by the Finance Ministry, approved by the Appointments Committee of the Cabinet and signed by the President.”

Mr. Bhushan flayed major Opposition parties including the BJP, and the mainstream media for being ‘silent’ on such a crucial issue involving public finances.

Warning that the independence of watchdog institutions such as the CAG, the CVC, the Election Commission and the Central Information Commission was being eroded, he said it was time to “reform the selection criterion” as laid out in the Jan Lokpal Bill evolved by the AAP in its earlier avtar as India Against Corruption.