Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Vinod Rai was no Seshan….Good riddance to a very bad auditor

Vinod Rai, the CAG, retired yesterday. His fans often compare him with the great TN Seshan, the Chief Election Commissioner between 1991-96. I fail to understand why. Seshan was a dynamo who functioned within his Constitution defined mandate, bore no political preferences, and stayed focused on the issue (electoral reforms), never the personalities (the politicians) involved. He left India better. If anything, Vinod Rai is the exact opposite; one who breached the constitutional limit, played political favorites and focused on personalities (see his attack of Sibal yesterday), not issues. Rai was out and out, a political animal. Manmohan Singh may have failed to arouse the animal spirits of India’s business class, but it appears he certainly aroused Mr. Rai’s.

Seshan cleaned up elections. Rai messed up auditing. Seshan steered clear of politics. Rai basked in it. Seshan (ironically) united the politicians into attacking him; Rai divided them between the ruling dispensation and the opposition. Seshan didn’t go about checking with politicians if they were on the right path. Rai did exactly that (Murli Manohar Joshi). Seshan was intellectually honest. Rai intellectually bankrupt. Seshan was successful. Rai will go down as being a failure. Where’s the comparison?

Lets be honest. Rai basked in breaching constitutional propriety. He probably found accounting boring and decided to become the one-man PAC itself, combining the job of maker of the audit reports with that of the checker of the same. He did what no other auditor does – go to the shareholders (voters) directly – through much publicized press conferences, flashing copies of his report and even smiling for the cameras. He was intellectually dishonest because he intentionally failed to understand that making policy is not his domain; that the cheap spectrum policy had several downstream benefits; that the intention of every government policy is not to maximize revenues (a point the Supreme Court later re-affirmed); and that his “innocuous” naming of something as “notional loss” would be spun by his favorite political party into “mota maal”.

Vinod Rai was surely a smart man, who played his political cards right. He knew that he was above the reach of any politician; his impeachment nearly impossible because of the divided Houses. He used this to the hilt. He must have wrung his hands in joy as he saw the Executive go into policy paralysis; stopping any activity that it was contemplating, good or bad; even seeking his “pre-approval” for new policies, turning topsy turvy the basic principles of there being a distance between the executive and the auditor. Vinod Rai was smart. Rumor is that he has negotiated a cabinet posting with the BJP should the NDA return to power in 2014.

Vinod Rai was happy to ignore even basic accounting standards. He pretended not to understand that when a company invests in another company’s equity via the issuance of new shares, the capital infused goes into the company, not into the original shareholders’ pockets. Issuing new equity is not the same as selling equity. Original promoters don’t make a profit. Unitech did not take home a single paisa from Telenor; all the money that Telenor invested went into the joint venture – and was used for rolling out the network, building the Uninor brand, running operations, funding the losses. As became clear later, the investment proved a bad one for Telenor; it lost everything that it had invested. Unitech also lost all its original investment. But what’s so surprising in this? Did Rai not know that a majority of investments go bad? Did he not see that Vodafone declared its maiden profit some 15 years after being in India, and even after it had got its spectrum cheap? Did he not see that because of the cheap spectrum, India’s mobile penetration climbed from 150 million to 900 million? Where was there anything illegal in this? Which joint venture doesn’t follow this exact same model?

If “notional loss” was his claim to fame, why did he not bring out a report on the loss caused by fuel, fertilizer and food subsidy? The notional loss due to fuel subsidy alone since 2004 would be more than Rs 10 lac crores. That would have made even bigger headlines. His party, the BJP, would have loved the fuel scam, because it had disbanded all administrative controls on petrol pricing. Maybe Rai didn’t do the fuel scam report because it would have ensnared the BJP in LPG and Kerosene subsidies. For the same reason maybe, he left fertilizer and food subsidy out as well. I still cannot understand how he projected telecom subsidy to be haraam, but fuel and fertilizer subsidy to be kosher.

Or take coal. Countless economists have argued that the calculations that Vinod Rai made were baloney. He applied CIL production costs to private companies (even though CIL mines are much cheaper to operate than the ones given to the private companies because of their better locations), refused to adjust for “time value of money” (something even a first year commerce student knows), and refused to take into account that power producers had in fact “reverse bid” for electricity keeping zero mine acquisition costs in mind. Given Rai’s rich academic background, it is difficult to believe that he didn’t understand all this. It had to be his political biases then. Why was he always focused on the period starting 2004 after the UPA took over? Probably because if he had gone into the NDA tenure, he would have found the same “scammy” things there as well. The coal allocation process has been going on since 1993, and the Kalyan Banerjee led Parliamentary committee stated that all governments since 1993 – including the NDA’s – were equally guilty. The same observation was made by the telecom JPC led by Chacko that a Rs 40000 crore loss took place during the NDA tenure. Rai was a smart man; he intentionally kept these periods out of his reviews.

Rai caused a lot of harm to India. It is because of his flawed reports that the telecom sector is in the doldrums. 3G has failed because operators bid too high. 2G is now starting to fail because Vinod Rai has made the government substitute cheap spectrum with expensive ones. Vinod Rai used the wrongly established 3G pricing to determine 2G pricing. Telcos have responded by culling low value subscribers – those on the bottommost rungs of our society. They may well get disempowered again, and they can owe that to Rai.

Rai will be missed only by the BJP supporters. He was the one who gave a depressed, diffident party (after the 2009 loss) a new charge. He is the one who put the government into a policy paralysis. He is the one who gave the BJP a baton to hit the squeaky clean PM with; the very man who cleaned up a flawed coal allocation system and replaced it with auctions. Without Rai, where would the BJP be today? So if anyone is going to miss Rai, it is the BJP. The rest of the country – especially those who care for audits and accounting – will say “good riddance”.

The real truth is that Rai’s legacy will be a political one; not an auditing one. He will be remembered not as one who fought the entire political class, but only one, the Congress. He wont be remembered as someone who cleaned up telecom; but as one who dealt it a fatal blow. Make no mistake, Rai will be remembered as the opposite of Seshan, not as Seshan….

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