Food inflation has surpassed nine percent year-on-year for six straight weeks. Petrol prices were raised by three rupees for what seems like the 100th time in two years. And each month brings news of yet another terrorist attack that could potentially have been avoided but for politicians dithering on this, that or the other purchase order.
Meanwhile, a man who is widely held responsible for the rape and murder of thousands of Muslims in 2002 is beginning to look like a credible candidate for Prime Minister in 2014 (if not sooner, given how the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) is coming apart at the seams!).
And the government’s response to all this is? Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?
The Latin phrase that is commonly translated as "Who will guard the guards?" is being invoked (implicitly) by the UPA government as justification for asking the Controller General of Accounts (CGA)-- the entity responsible for maintaining the accounts of Union Ministries -- to audit the accounts of the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG)-- the supreme audit institution of the country, constitutionally mandated to promote accountability in the use of public funds.
Nevermind that there are no indications of anything amiss in the CAG’s expenditures or that they routinely submit to audits, including an external audit currently being conducted by the Australian National Audit Office. According to an unnamed source quoted in Mint, "The government wants to audit CAG's expenditure [because] currently there is no independent audit." Fact is, it is beyond obvious to anyone who cares that this proposed audit of the auditors is nothing more than a cynical attempt at intimidation on the part of a government reeling from the embarrassments of a seemingly never-ending string of scandals.
The UPA might couch its shameless behaviour in the language of good governance, but no amount of hand waving can hide the fact that there is nothing "independent" about having a body that is functionally dependent on the Finance ministry (and, therefore, ultimately answerable to the prime minister) look into the activities of the constitutional body whose reports have laid bare irregularities in the allocation of contracts for the radio spectrum, the contracts handed out during the Commonwealth Games and other similar instances of malfeasance, mismanagement, and corruption.
Should we really be surprised, though?
This is, after all, the same government that, in the persons of Manish Tewari, Digvijaya Singh, Kapil Sibal and others, attempted to counter Anna Hazare's anti-corruption theatrics by accusing him of corruption. And by all indications, this line of attack was the Party line. Clearly, Congress and its powers-that-be believe the hackneyed wisdom that offense is the best defense. (To be fair, however, there is absolutely no reason to believe that a government led by any other existing political party would behave much differently.)
But quite apart from exposing the governing coalition's complete lack of a moral compass (to say nothing of a programmatic agenda or even political savvy), this sorry witch hunt should serve as a sober wake-up call for those of us who, caught up in the populistic fervor of Team Anna, have come to believe that the answer to India's corruption woes is yet another bureaucratic agency.
To those who would argue that we need a Lokpal to police the government because human nature is corrupt (or corruptible), consider this: It is precisely because human nature is inherently flawed that the solution to the problem of guarding the guards cannot be appointing another guard. And certainly not one so large and all-powerful as that envisioned in some proposals, according to which which the Lokpal would have the authority to receive complaints of corruption, initiate investigations and prosecutions, and impose penalties on those found guilty by it.
There are very good reasons why the criminal justice system in India, as in most other democracies, separates the functions of investigation (police), prosecution (public prosecutor/executive), and verdict/sentencing (judiciary). To do otherwise would be to introduce unavoidable conflicts of interest into the system that would make a mockery of due process.
With one agency potentially in charge of all aspects of addressing corruption, including detection, investigation, prosecution, and sentencing, help us all when the rot does eventually set in. Because, no doubt, it will.
-- Vinay Jawahar is Executive Director, CCDS.