The Congress on Sunday accused the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) Rajiv Mehrishi of “conflict of interest” in auditing the Rafale jet deal. It said Mehrishi was the finance secretary from October 2014 to August 2015 when the decision to buy 36 Rafale jets was announced and a previous possible deal for 126 aircraft was scrapped. The Congress said Mehrishi allegedly had a role in the negotiations for the deal.
Congress leader Kapil Sibal said Mehrishi should have recused himself from auditing the deal and if the CAG report on it is tabled in Parliament, it would amount to a scam.
“How can the CAG probe decisions he took as finance secretary? First, he will protect himself and then the government. There is no bigger conflict of interest,” Sibal said at press conference here.
Sibal said governments come and go and the Congress “had its eyes on officials who are overenthusiastic and trying to show the prime minister how loyal they are despite a conflict of interest”.
His press conference came a day before the national auditor is likely to submit to President Ram Nath Kovind a much-awaited report on its audit of military procurements over the last few years, including the ₹59,000-crore Rafale deal.
In a memorandum submitted to Mehrishi on Sunday, the Congress said the cardinal principle of law is that “no one can be a judge in his own cause.” “Representatives of the finance ministry, i.e. member of the Cost Accounts Service and financial advisers were part of the Indian negotiation team. Hence, you [Mehrishi] were also involved in the negotiations of Rafale deal,” the memorandum said.
“In fact, the irregularities, bungling, and corruption were happening at the highest level with your direct or indirect complicity and consent. This reflects your direct collaboration in the entire matter,” the memorandum added. “That being so, there is no reason or occasion for you to audit the 36 Rafale aircraft deal as you can neither be a judge in your own cause nor can sit in audit over your own actions to which you were a party.”
Union minister Arun Jaitley dismissed the Congress’s charges, calling them yet another attack on the institution of CAG based on falsehood. “After ten years in government, former [Congress-led] UPA [United Progressive Alliance Government] ministers still don’t know that finance secretary is only a designation given to the senior-most secretary in the finance ministry,” Jaitley tweeted. “Defence ministry files are dealt with by Secretary (Expenditure). Secretary (Economic affairs) has no role in expenditure files of the defence ministry.”
Top officials, too, contradicted the Congress’s claims saying only defence ministry officials were part of the negotiating team. “The negotiating team had seven members and they were all from the Indian Air Force, MoD [the ministry of defence] and the finance division of the MoD,” said an official on condition of anonymity.
Officials said there was nothing new in bureaucrats being given constitutional posts after retirement. They cited former defence secretary Shashi Kant Sharma’s example. The UPA government appointed Sharma as CAG in May 2013. Several reports came out during his tenure including a report on the AgustaWestland VVIP chopper scandal, the officials said.
A CAG spokesman was unavailable for comments. An official with the audit watchdog said on the condition of anonymity that Mehrishi never handled the charge of expenditure secretary, who may have handled the Rafale file as part of routine duties. “Mehrishi was finance secretary but all secretaries in the finance ministry directly report to the finance minister. Mehrishi, while being in the finance ministry, did not handle the expenditure department. Even the financial advisor reports to the expenditure secretary,” the official added.
The Congress’s objections came two days after The Hindu reported that the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) had conducted parallel talks with the French government over the Rafale deal.