Speaking on the role and functions of the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) of India in the Constituent Assembly on May 30, 1949, Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, Chairman of the Constitution Drafting Committee, said that this officer was “probably the most important officer in the Constitution of India” because he is the one man who is going to see that the expenses voted by Parliament are not exceeded or varied. “If this functionary is to carry out the duties- and his duties, I submit, are far more important than the duties even of the judiciary ………I personally feel that he ought to have far greater independence than the Judiciary itself”.

Without exception, every member of the Constituent Assembly who spoke on the articles relating to the CAG, including T.T. Krishnamachari (TTK), Pandit Hirday Nath Kunzru, K.T. Shah and R.K. Sidhva – fully endorsed Dr. Ambedkar’s sentiments. The primary objective of the assembly appeared to be to clothe the CAG with such powers that the executive would in no circumstances be able to weaken his independence and objectivity. As a result, the first amendment moved that day was to change the nomenclature of the Auditor General to Comptroller and Auditor General, because as TTK said, the function of the Auditor General is not merely to audit but to have a control over the expenses of government.  The debate in the Constituent Assembly and the final wording of these Articles in the Constitution tells us a lot of the exalted perch that the founding fathers gave to the CAG.

This background is essential in order to understand the mischief that may be afoot at this juncture to undermine the independence of this institution while choosing a successor to Mr. Vinod Rai, the incumbent CAG, with whom the Congress Party- led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government at the Centre has been having a running feud. The union government has repeatedly locked horns with the CAG over the last two years because its image has taken a beating over the scams exposed by the country’s supreme audit agency including the ones relating to the conduct of the Commonwealth Games and the scandalous and unfair manner in which 2G Spectrum and coal blocks were sold to private entities. Since they had no credible defence, several ministers in the union government and some leading members of the Congress Party have gone on the offensive and tried, without much success though, to accuse the CAG of having a political agenda.

Government’s Discomfort with an Independent CAG

Meanwhile, since the incumbent CAG, Mr. Rai is due to retire in May, 2013, there is a lurking fear that the union government may see this as a god send and try to have a “committed” CAG in place, just like the “committed judiciary” that the Congress Party wanted during the Emergency. This fear is not without basis. In fact, Mr. V. Narayansamy, the Minister of State in the Prime Minister’s Office let the cat out of the bag some months ago when he told PTI that the government intended to make the office of CAG a multi-member body.

The minister’s caused a political uproar forcing the minister to retract and even claim that he had been “misquoted”. But, this was enough for all to realize that the government’s intentions were not sanguine.

There is a history to these fears because the Congress Party, which enjoyed a two-thirds majority in Parliament in the 1970s, turned India’s democracy into a dictatorship, made drastic constitutional changes to weaken the judiciary and virtually wrecked the independence of many constitutional authorities, including the CAG. The mantra in those days, as stated earlier, was a “committed” judiciary – meaning a judiciary committed, not to the Constitution, but to the prime minister of the day Ms.Indira Gandhi. Similarly, the government, which had imposed the Emergency in 1976, passed orders to weaken the office of the CAG. Mr. Y. Krishnan, former Deputy CAG says in his book “Audit in India’s Democracy”, that until 1976, all papers and documents pertaining to the subject matter under audit scrutiny were made available to CAG and this included secret and confidential records. However, in 1976 the government decided that “only books and accounts need be made available to Audit and it was not obligatory for government to furnish records or papers containing discussions within government, leading to a particular decision or formulation of a particular policy”. Luckily the Janata Party which was voted to power in 1977 repaired much of the damage done to our democratic Constitution by restoring the original articles and deleting the obnoxious amendments introduced during the Emergency. Similarly, the orders passed to weaken the CAG in 1976 were withdrawn and the original authority of the CAG was restored by the Janata Party, which put democracy back on track.

However, it would be unwise to think that these undemocratic tendencies are now part of history, because the ruling dispensation has often laboured to remind us that the Emergency mindset is still alive and kicking. In recent years, the  appointments of Mr. Navin Chawla as Election Commissioner and Mr. P.J. Thomas as Central Vigilance Commissioner – go to establish that the Congress Party’s discomfort with healthy democratic norms and independent constitutional authorities persists.

The  latest example of the government’s contempt for norms is its move to appoint Mr.S.C.Sinha and former Supreme Court Judge Cyriac Joseph as members of the National Human Rights Commission(NHRC). NHRC members are chosen by a six member committee comprising the prime minister, the home minister, the Lok Sabha Speaker, the Deputy Chairman of the Rajya Sabha and the leaders of the opposition in the two Houses of Parliament. Ignoring the objections of the opposition leaders, the Congress Party, using its majority, is pushing for these appointments. This is exactly what the government did while appointing Mr.P.J.Thomas as the Central Vigilance Commissioner. Later the Supreme Court struck down the appointment.  
Therefore, there is every danger of the government choosing a person who is not strong enough morally and ethically to leverage the powers vested in the CAG by the Constitution. Given the rank irresponsibility and partisanship displayed by the government in these matters, the people must demand that a collegium be appointed to choose the CAG.  Some retired bureaucrats and members of the Forum of Retired Officers of Indian Audit and Accounts Service have fired the first salvo in this regard by writing to the President Mr. Pranab Mukherjee and demanding that the need of the hour is a “transparent, institutionalized, selection mechanism” for choosing the next CAG. They have suggested that a six member committee which includes the Chief Justice of India or his nominee should be appointment to select the CAG. The President must exert his moral pressure on the government to consider this proposal. Since he is the appointing authority and since he is under oath to protect the Constitution, he must prevent the government from appointing a pliant, “committed” CAG.