Vinod Rai: The biggest hurdle to good governance is the Old Boys’ Club

Richa Mishra | Updated on September 13, 2019

Problem solver: Vinod Rai, the so-called Mr Fixit for his ability to handle crises within government bodies and outside   -  THE HINDU

The former CAG on the autonomy of institutes, pliable bureaucrats and how you don’t need a Sachin Tendulkar to run the BCCI

You could call him Mr Fixit. If anything goes wrong, within government institutions or otherwise, Vinod Rai, 71, is called upon to look for answers. The retired bureaucrat, out with a new book, Rethinking Good Governance — Holding to Account India’s Public Institutions, was asked to set right problems in the banking system, the cricket board and a temple trust, to name a few.

The former Comptroller and Auditor General of India (CAG), who turned the arc lights on the 2G scam with a report that said there was a presumptive loss of ₹1.76 lakh crore in 2G spectrum allocation — believes that his book addresses the questions on governance that are being asked by people at large. Awarded the Padma Bhushan in 2016, the 1972-batch Kerala cadre officer writes that governance is best served when institutions are allowed to function with autonomy. “The old order changeth, yielding place to the new” is the mantra of the civil servant who was CAG from 2008 to 2013. Excerpts from an interview:

You talk about the independence of public institutions in your book. But institutions such as the Reserve Bank of India (RBI), Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), Election Commission of India (ECI) have all courted controversy. How can an institution’s autonomy be maintained?

In the kind of democracy we run, we cannot keep politics away from institutions. Since you mentioned the RBI, I have pointed out (in the book) four or five instances where RBI governors had differences with the government of the day and some even quit. This happened as early as in 1953. Now, at that time, nobody could say politics had vitiated the narrative. There was a healthy difference of opinion and there always will be a healthy tension between the government, which is the fiscal authority, and the RBI, the monetary authority.

But healthy differences are good…

Yes. That is why I have used the word ‘healthy’ in the book. But the relationship entirely depends upon the acumen, the capability and competence of the people manning those places. Things have to be taken forward with a certain degree of adjustments on both sides. People who just stuck to their opinions or could not build consensus resigned. I don’t think it can be taken as an erosion of the autonomy of the institutions.

Well, some recent instances — the exit of ex-RBI governor Raghuram Rajan and a bureaucrat more in sync with the government’s views being brought in to head the institution — do make you wonder…

You know, all the governors that the RBI has had were bureaucrats or academicians or economists. It is not fair to say that the bureaucrats have all been totally in sync with the government. Probably a bureaucrat has an understanding of how a government works and is able to dovetail the RBI’s objective with the government’s.

However, I have pointed out the case of (former governors) D Subbarao and YV Reddy in the book. They had severe differences with the finance ministers of that time.

Healthy differences: Vinod Rai (left) with former RBI governor YV Reddy, whom he mentions in his book as having had severe differences with the finance minister of the day   -  PTI


But that doesn’t mean they threw in the towel. It does not mean losing independence. It just means that your capacity to convince the other side is not fully successful. You have to be a good seller of your ideas. You market them in different ways. That is where success lies.

What about investigating agencies? How can they be independent? You have had your experience with the 2G findings as the CAG chief. Is it a tightrope walk in the CAG — you are, after all, the government auditor.

In the case of CAG, it is not a tightrope walk. There are certain institutions that are constitutionally prescribed — the Union Public Service Commission, ECI, CAG. They take birth from the Constitution itself, so their autonomy, if they want, can be preserved; their independence cannot be messed around with.

But there are some institutions that are statutes. The CBI and Central Vigilance Commission report to the Department of Personnel. So, in some way, possibly there could be interference there. But that’s not new. Indira Gandhi nationalised banks, removed governors, gave extensions to the then CBI director and the CBI was then made pliable. So, this has happened from time to time.

You say functioning largely depends on the individuals heading these institutions. Is the bureaucracy losing its spine?

I don’t think the bureaucracy is losing its spine. There are black sheep. The only difference now, I see, is that since people are being recruited in the bureaucracy at an advanced age — the average age of people joining the services today is 30 or above — they cannot be moulded. Their political thinking, ideologies are all crystallised.

The larger problem is that these people retire earlier than those who join at 22-23, thus having a shorter career span. In government, it is seniority that determines your movement to higher levels. And the maximum level they can reach is that of an additional secretary. So, there is no career aspiration left and this is the time one becomes pliable.

But career aspirations of bureaucrats with longer work spans seem to be affected by the 360-degree concept (a feedback mechanism used as a tool for elevation). You refer to the 360-degree system as opaque…

Yes, it is opaque. I have seen appraisals in the private sector. In those appraisals, you assess yourself, and then the superior authority grades you. But the moment you are told your performance is below par, you have the right to ask the HR concerned for the reasons behind the assessment. This is a healthy practice, which allows you to improve yourself. When it is opaque, you don’t know where you have gone wrong and you are not allowed to correct yourself. The 360-degree method is best done by an outside agency. When an officer is being checked out by colleagues then issues such as cadre loyalty and batchmate envy crop up — and that’s where it is a problem. Internal 360 comes with these issues.

In the last general elections, the credibility of institutions (CBI, EC, among others) was a poll issue. How do you think these institutions can remain apolitical?

Rethinking Good Governance: Holding to Account India’s Public Institutions Vinod Rai Rupa Publications India Non-fiction ₹595


I decided to write this book because the man on the street had started asking questions, holding authority accountable.

You chaired the committee nominated by the Supreme Court (SC) to look after the administration of the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) and were asked to conduct an audit of the properties of the Sree Padmanabhaswamy temple in Thiruvananthapuram. You refer to cricket and the temple as religion. How different or similar were the two?

Cricket administration is not very different from temple administration or any other department in corporate administration. The basic principles and parameters are the same. So you don’t have to be a Sachin Tendulkar to run the BCCI. The only thing that intrigued me at BCCI were the people who had been at the honorary level connected with the Board or state cricket associations for over 10 or 15 years and were not willing to leave. There was no perceptible argument for this.

One gentleman with a state cricket association was there for 40 years. He said, ‘What’s wrong with me? I am 74 years old.’ Now my request to him was that you have done a great job, but now why don’t you become a patron and give a place to the younger generation? Move on! And that is why in the book I wrote, ’The old order changeth, yielding place to the new.’ The biggest hurdle to good governance is the Old Boys’ Club. They operate in a clique.

How was the BCCI cleansing process?

As far as the cleansing process is concerned, it has to be dealt with in two ways — game and administration. Just as the SC wanted, we have been successful. I say so because doubts were expressed about betting, rigging and fixing. I am not saying all this has been curtailed totally, but we have put together a very credible anti-corruption unit — a team of former police officers, more of intelligence gatherers, with an established network and an ear to the ground. The other party also knows they are being watched.

I don’t think there was any leakage within the BCCI, but we have ensured that a very credible process is in place, whether it is in purchase or contract, large media contracts, making sure that the process is transparent and totally leak-proof, and that it would be done in a manner which can stand scrutiny at any given time.

How soon do you think you can finish the process?

The Supreme Court did not give us any time schedule. They only said, ‘Look after the administration till the elections’. We would have loved to have got the (BCCI) elections done the year before last. Unfortunately, interlocutory applications which kept going to court — there are 92 of them — delayed the process. But now the SC has given a final order, and we have fixed elections on October 22. We will quit after that.

You seem to be looking at controversies of all kinds. In the book you also refer to the Adarsh Cooperative Housing Society scam [where politicians and others procured flats meant for war widows and Army personnel]…

I have examined nine institutions, which I called democratic institutions — Parliament, the SC, ECI, CAG, Central Vigilance Commission, RBI, CBI, Civil Services, Right to Information.

Then temple and sports affect you and me the most. The principles of administration in both are the same. I put Adarsh in the book to say, ‘Look, this is where there was a total breakdown of trust’. In the other two, it was not a breakdown, it was not money. But in the case of Adarsh, it was pure greed. And that is why I call it the fence eating the crop, because those who were mandated to do the work or administer justice were the ones who had failed to do so. The worst example was Adarsh.

You are looking into the BCCI, are a distinguished visiting research fellow at the Institute of South Asian Studies, National University of Singapore, and on the global board of trustees of the International Financial Reporting Standards Foundation, London. So, what now?

One more book!

Published on September 13, 2019

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