The Gloves Are Off

The Comptroller and Auditor General weighs in for the good fight

Comptroller and Auditor General of India Vinod Rai (centre), accompanied by his wife (left) and other officials. NARINDER NANU / AFP PHOTO
01 September, 2011

NOBODY LIKES TO BE CALLED “just an accountant”—probably not even accountants. So it was an impressive jab when Sushil Kumar, the lawyer for former telecommunications minister Andimuthu Raja, hit India’s Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) with the news that “the CAG is just an accountant… He is not a lawyer, but just an accountant… howsoever high he may be.”

Ouch. It’s not easy for a man in Raja’s position—jailed, and accused by the CAG of lightening the exchequer by `1.76 trillion—to land a blow so neatly in the gut of his accuser. But the words “just an accountant” incite an identity crisis that the CAG is just beginning to experience. It’s an identity crisis that threatens the comptroller’s power, and begins from the very word we use to describe him.

What does the comptroller do? It’s an odd title, which muddles your sense of his function rather than clarifying it. “Auditor” is more helpful, and gets you as far as identifying CAG as the office which examines the claims of other accounting divisions in the government. Yet it’s hard to ignore the lead word, and the vague responsibilities that might be dictated by the intriguing verb, “to comptrol”. Could Raja be right? Is a man who comptrols just an accountant? Or is he something more—something Raja wouldn’t like to admit?

As early as 1916, the editors of TheNew York Times called for the banishing of the word “comptroller” altogether. One editorial complained that “the scriveners, centuries ago, ignorant of Latin, but having heard that in French compter means to count, and assuming that the Controller has to do with money, he must of course count money, wedged the false and perverting letter ‘p’, with an ‘m’ before it, into a perfectly good and correctly formed word”. Nearly a century later, comptroller is still a peculiar word—there’s a froggy dip in how the tongue moves from bilabial omp to the alveolar t. Controller, the “perfectly good” word that the NYT insisted on using (despite “comptroller” being enshrined in state law) draws on the strength of the word “control”. But that proud implication of authority is choked by a very different meaning that’s been lodged in its throat—leaving it bulging like a python that’s mistakenly swallowed a typewriter.

The uncomfortable syllable comes from the French compte, meaning “account” (from the Latin computare, meaning “to sum up”). Already this is pretty different from “control”, but the direction in which it pulls is mostly thanks to another word descended from computare. The implications of “computer” hang heavily on the word comptroller. A “comp” is a passive, technical and procedural machine; it hums away in the background and doesn’t judge its findings.

Raja argued that a comptroller is not a controller, but “just an accountant”—a definition that the current CAG, Vinod Rai, is clearly going to resist. Since the start of the Parliamentary session, the CAG has not made himself available for interviews, but luckily he had a long conversation with Lola Nayar that was published in the 11 July issue of Outlook. Nayar found the office of the CAG on its most aggressive footing since its glory days in the 1960s. The interview is worth reading in full, but it’s not hard to summarise. In essence, the CAG is trying to move from passive accounting to a more controlling role. It is shifting emphasis from its Financial Audits to its Performance Auditing role: That is, it’s shifting from validating the quality of governmental hisaab-kitaab to evaluating how well government programmes achieve their objectives.

Previously shy of the media, the CAG is opening up to the press to increase the impact of its reports. It has begun to highlight irregularities at the front of its reports—“in bold letters,” Nayar said over the phone—rather than leaving them buried in the body.

The comptroller is pushing for amendments to CAG’s (Duties, Powers and Conditions of Service) Act of 1971. In doing so, he hopes to close loopholes that allow government officers to delay turning over their accounts, and let ministries delay the presentation of CAG reports to Parliament. The comptroller’s office is fighting for an expanded mandate so that it can audit public-private partnerships, panchayat budgets and state-funded societies (which were all less important, or did not exist, back in 1971). As the comptroller becomes more of a controller and less of an accountant, there has also been a change in the institutional culture, Nayar said: “They have a lot of officers now with a lot of pride.”

Today, Vinod Rai is a star in the biggest news stories in the country, because he’s been identifying a lot of discrepancies and hasn’t been coy about reporting them. As the country searches for a hero in the war on corruption, the CAG has been punching above its weight, knocking down culprits before they can bolt for the exit: among them, people accused in the 2G spectrum auction, the Scorpene submarine deal and the Commonwealth Games.

The 2G report reflects new facts about the CAG’s accounting role. Last year, just as the scam was coming to light, the CAG announced its appraisal of the revenue lost at `1.76 trillion. Numbers like this are unthinkable, impossible to visualise or weigh. They beg for a new vocabulary of scale, like astronomers’ parsecs or the yugas of Vedic cosmologists. (Remember: `1 trillion rupees is to `1 million what `1 million is to `1.) Worse, the 2G figure expressed the opportunity cost (what might have been the value) of something that barely exists.

The Central government shoved back on the 2G auction report: the new telecom minister, Kapil Sibal, rejected the figure, and the prime minister criticised the decision to publicise it. “Never in the past has the CAG held a press conference as the present CAG has done,” he said. CAG’s figure held its authority, but it became clear that a hypothetical element had entered the business of national accounts. Defending the report to Nayar, Vinod Rai acknowledged, “What can be debated is the amount of loss. What does he [the prime minister] disagree with? It is on the computation of the loss.” Computation is not what it used to be.

In this context, the comptroller is especially vulnerable to the charge that he is “just an accountant” and nothing more. But to think about the verb “to comptrol” is to approach a different understanding of how CAG should act. Even if it was originally a perversion, the word ropes together computing and controlling, rather than forcing them apart. CAG’s report on the Commonwealth Games, presented before Parliament last month, helped reveal what that must look like.

This was the first document that compelled us to see the truths behind the numbers of the Games; among them, that the scale of misuse was far greater by the Delhi government than by the Organising Committee (OC) and the pathetic fall guy, Suresh Kalmadi, and that the real crime behind the Games splurge was not just graft but a fundamental misappropriation—spending an amount on an athletic event that would have paid the state government’s education budget for 20 years. CAG’s estimate of the amount spent on the Games comes to more than `185 billion—not including expenditure by the Delhi Metro Rail Corporation, or of the Airport Authority on the capital’s new terminal.

Recent events have polarised opinion on how we should control corruption. A widespread middle-class demand for a prosecuting Leviathan, the Jan Lokpal, has provoked an elite revulsion to any authority that might overstep its bounds. A recent Indian Express editorial likened the CAG to “a mild-mannered accountant turned superhero”, and advised him to remain “professional”. This is presumably how “just an accountant” (or a computer) would act. The Congress party, too, seems to be warning the CAG to step back from the risk of politicised counting. Yet the fact is that professional accounting is implicitly a kind of politicised counting, because it denies anyone the authority to announce what the numbers are really trying to say. This is especially convenient in an age when numbers are growing incomprehensible. Comptrolling, as we’re seeing now, is political counting—not politicised counting—because it can reveal some truth about the numbers rather than just the math.

After Raja, Sheila Dikshit was to suffer the truth of the numbers of the Commonwealth Games. Since last October, the venal graft of the OC has been an easy target, wheeled up closer and closer by a government which knew that a real accounting would turn the fire on it. That’s what happened thanks to a bit of comptrolling, which is what we’ll need if we are to truly fight waste, along with the obvious graft of overpricing toilet paper. It’s the only way that the office of the CAG can really count—and that we can, as well.