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Politicians & Accountability:PUBLIC FUNDS FOR PRIVATE AGENDAS,by Ashok Kapur IAS(Retd.),17 July,09 Print E-mail

Open Forum

New Delhi, 17 July 2009

Politicians & Accountability


By Ashok Kapur IAS (Retd.)

It was General de Gaulle, a former President of France who had this to say about the politicians in general: “He comes to you posing as your servant (prior to the election). Once elected, he lords over you as your master”. He said it in the context of his nation, and understood the ways of politicians very well. Of course, he himself was not a professional politician. But he could judge them as an objective outsider.

The Indian politician, in this game of deception, could easily get a walkover vis a vis his counterparts anywhere else. He is a champion of champions. One prominent reason he goes about virtually unscathed is the fact that he is hardly accountable to anyone. Once elected to  public office , he enjoys virtual immunity for five years. The concept of accountability to the people, come elections, is a neat theoretical  formulation. It is hardly effective in practice, at least in our democracy.

Lack of accountability breeds a certain disdain for propriety and ethical norms amongst holders of public office. It has been going on for  long, since the time of promulgation of the Constitution .Especially after the passing away of its idealistic Founding Fathers, one by one. In theory , the nation  boasts of the most comprehensive such charter in the world, aptly described as a Holy Covenant between the state and the people. The Constitution has established some of the finest institutions in the nation to enforce the rule of law and compliance with democratic norms.

Trust the  Indian politician to subvert all institutions to further his private agenda, at the cost of public welfare. A ruling chief minister of a north Indian state, who never tires of  proclaiming herself as a messiah of the deprived and the discriminated has diverted crores of public funds to build monuments to herself and her party colleagues. In India, the expression generally used is ‘public funds.’ In the world’s oldest democracy - U.S,  a more evocative expression is used- ‘tax payers’ money.

Accepted norms of public policy dictate that taxpayers’ money ought only to be utilized for overall public welfare in a secular state. Ruling politicians  formulate general policy. The actual translation of policy into projects and schemes is done by the civil service which is mandated to be politically neutral. Conceptually, even the ruling party is not supposed to dictate to the civil service the intended beneficiaries of welfare spending as long as it is done in a non- partisan manner.

Constitutionally, the custodian of public funds is the government of the day as represented by the cabinet comprising the elected party members. Once the budget is voted by the Parliament or the legislative assembly as the case may be, the priorities are undeniably determined by the cabinet. But the cabinet does not have absolute discretion in  matters of  public finance. It has to observe norms of propriety, in addition to legal and constitutional requirements.

In principle, there can be no quarrel with raising statues of public figures. But this is generally done by posterity, in public recognition of  a leader’s contribution to overall public welfare and nation building. It is unheard of in a civilized democracy for a ruling politician to squander public funds to project himself, or herself, in so vulgar a fashion. Public money is entrusted to the executive to work for common good in a welfare state. To divert funds in such a manner is a breach of trust, in a manner of speaking.

The Constitution has set up a watchdog for overseeing proper utilization of public funds- the Comptroller and Auditor General of India. He is independent of the control of the executive, and reports directly to the Parliament. It is his constitutional responsibility  to ensure that all public authorities  not only comply with legal norms but can also justify all expenditure on grounds of propriety. It would be a fit case for immediate intervention by the CAG as the financial impropriety by the state government is continuing openly if not somewhat brazenly.

Parliament has not passed any law defining the functions of the CAG. Apparently, this is a deliberate omission, in order to afford the maximum freedom to the Constitutional functionary to scrutinize public spending. The powers of the CAG were outlined by a former incumbent thus: “ He himself determines the extent and scope of audit in regard to various types of transactions. His audit transcends the mere formal or legal aspects of audit and includes what may be called efficiency-cum-propriety audit.”

It is reported that taxpayers’ money has been diverted to build statues of individuals who can hardly be described as public figures. Besides, election symbol of the ruling political party has been carved out in stone, paid for out of public funds and installed on public land. Apart from the aspect of serious impropriety, it would be in overall public interest to scrutinize the expenditure with reference to various Election Laws. It would be a service to the tax payer if the state government could  enlighten the CAG about the legality of public funding of a political party even if it is ruling the state for the time being.

The CAG is the reincarnation of the Auditor General  prior to the introduction of the Constitution of independent India, under the Government of India Act, 1935. Students of constitutional history would recall that Lord Mountbatten, on his appointment as Fleet Commander of India and Burma wanted to install something as trifling as his framed photos in public offices. He was politely advised against it by his audit officers. A stickler for democratic norms and propriety, like most British officials, he dropped the proposal. It was a different era altogether, perhaps lost to us forever.

When the question of a Constitutional successor to the erstwhile Auditor General of India was being debated in the Constituent Assembly, there was a consensus to make the CAG institution as a more effective and  powerful body than his earlier incarnation. The AG was redesignated as CAG. He was modelled on his UK counterpart. Unfortunately, the Assembly stopped short of adopting the European model.

Many countries in Europe have separate Audit Courts to look into cases of abuse of authority by holders of public office to incur improper or extravagant expenditure to further private agendas. A similar misuse by a Union minister comes readily to mind. The former HRD minister of the Union Government made self -publicity an article of faith. Hardly a day would pass when his photograph would not be splashed in  national dailies on one pretext or another, making grandiose announcements on behalf of his ministry.

For full five years, the unabashed campaign of self-promotion was conducted by the HRD minister, without let or hindrance, all at public expense. He set a very undesirable precedent, which is now being  followed by the lady chief minister of the north Indian state. Even at this belated stage, it would be in public interest to have a Special Audit of the total amount of tax payers’ money thus squandered by the former HRD minister. It may act as a deterrent for future holders of public office should they be so tempted.

An astute American analyst studied closely the personality of one of last century’s most brutal dictators, late Saddam Hussein of Iraq. He came to the conclusion that such leaders have an irresistible urge to proclaim their omnipotence publicly through symbols like grand palaces and mega statues. He described Saddam Hussain somewhat colourfully, as suffering from an “ edifice complex”. At the time, one drew comfort from the thought that a democracy was spared such blatant exhibition of omnipotence. How wrong one could be.---INFA

(Copyright, India News and Feature Alliance)


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