Rai’s reports accusing the government of losing tens of billions of dollars of potential revenue — by giving away natural resources to private companies for a pittance — have dominated news headlines for the past two years.
They have also supplied information for a nationwide anti-corruption movement, helped send a government minister, senior bureaucrats and several business leaders to jail, and damaged the government’s image beyond repair.
During a rare conversation in his office, Rai first admitted and then denied that the government might regret having appointed him, before concluding with a smile that “yes, probably they are surprised in some ways” by the way he has gone about his job.
Surprise would an understatement, for the hard-hitting reports of India’s comptroller and auditor general (CAG) have prompted nothing short of fury within India’s government and strident attacks from senior members of the ruling Congress party.
Along with a vibrant media, an activist Supreme Court and an increasingly vociferous civil society, his supporters say, Rai has made his office into a powerful force for accountability and transparency in modern India.
“This heralds the start of a completely new era of government being forced to become more transparent,” said Independent lawmaker Rajeev Chandrasekhar, who said previous incumbents of the CAG’s office have often been “poodles of the government.”
After a lifetime in India’s bureaucracy, the 64-year-old Rai himself admits to a few surprises since being plucked from the Finance Ministry to take over a sprawling network of 63,000 employees, including accountants in every state of India.
“The lack of integrity at high levels of government certainly has come as a surprise to me,” he said, referring to the amounts of money involved as “mind-boggling.”
“The man in the street talks about it but does not have first- or secondhand knowledge of it,” he said. “Today, what’s happened is citizen groups have come center stage and are seeking a certain level of public accountability, and I think we all owe it to them to bring these things center stage.”
Rai is not the first auditor general in Indian history to bring a government to its knees — a CAG report into huge kickbacks in the purchase of army field howitzers from a Swedish company contributed to the 1989 election defeat of Rajiv Gandhi’s government.
But Rai has undoubtedly interpreted his mandate more aggressively than his predecessors, going beyond narrow financial audits to examine how government policies have performed.
His role, he explained, is to oversee government activities and spending, and more broadly to make India’s executive accountable to parliament. Once appointed, the CAG enjoys constitutional protection from dismissal, except through a process of impeachment.