By M.V.Ramakrishnan

Sunday, July 30, 2017

When I Had A Lucky Strike During A Tough Discussion On Tobacco Exports

The 1970s were a wonderful time in my official career, because as a field officer conducting certain unprecedented investigative audits in the most formidable economic Ministries like Commerce, Industry, Agriculture and Supplies, I enjoyed absolute and unlimited freedom of action, and was able to adopt my own audit principles and could device my own extremely innovative audit procedures and practices.  

In this context, where I invariably encountered very forceful resistance from the Executive side at the highest levels, , I received immense encouragement and moral support from my superiors in the Audit establishment, including the Comptroller & Auditor-General of India (Mr. A. Baksi, who always spoke to me in an intimately friendly tone which bridged the enormous gulf which normally separated us in rank and status).

The CAG's audit under the Constitution of India covered the financial concerns of the Central Government and more than a couple of dozen State Governments all over India, as well as the performance of all the commercial enterprises owned by them.  It was an awesome jurisdiction, and it wasn't usual at all for the CAG to have any discussions with field officers in any connection.  But he was so fascinated by what I was trying to accomplish that he made a conspicuous exception of my case, and would now and then send for me to find out the nature and scope of ongoing and prospective investigations.

It was in such a context that I happened to outline my perception of the glaring anomalies in the tobacco export trade, as explained in a recent post (Manifestation Of The British Tobacco Empire In Independent India).  Present in the smoke-filled chamber of the CAG were Mr. G.N. Pathak, Accountant-General (my immediate boss), and the redoubtable Mr. H.B. Bhar, Deputy CAG.

In the course of the earnest discussion, the CAG and Mr. Bhar subjected me to a severe cross-examination, and I had a ready and accurate  answer for every intricate question they posed.  Mr. Baksi -- who was intensely concentrating on the intricate issue while puffing away at his cigarillos -- seemed very pleased, and decided to have a little bit of fun to relieve the tension.

"Are you a smoker, Ramakrishna, by any chance?" he intervened.

"I used to be, Sir, but not now." I replied.

"What did you use to smoke?"

"Mainly a pipe, Sir!  But also cigarettes sometimes, especially if I could get a foreign brand."

"Is that so?  Well then, let me ask you some tough questions!" the CAG said, with a mischievous smile. "Are you ready?"

"Yes, Sir," I said nervously, not knowing what to expect.

"What is the difference between Philip Morris and Lucky Strike?"

"Lucky Strike has a sweet taste, Sir, and Philip Morris tastes bitter."

"Not Bad!  Which Indian cigarette tastes bitter, like Philip Morris?"

"Char Minar, Sir!"

"Right again!  Which pipe tobacco has a sweet flavor, like Lucky Strike?"

"Three Nuns, Sir!"

"OK, but hold on!  Now I have a question I'm sure you can't answer!  What is Sobranie?"

"It's a cigarette made in France with Russian tobacco, Sir. It has an oval shape, and is wrapped in black paper with gold lettering."

Mr.Baksi seemed delighted, and exclaimed : "Well, I give up!  You win!" 

But of course, it was a pure coincidence that I knew all the right answers, and a couple of different questions were very likely to have floored me.  I just had a Lucky Strike, I guess!

Unfortunately, I wasn't so lucky with the day's main business.  As you'd have noted from the earlier post, the Deputy CAG wasn't convinced by my perfectly logical argument about the CAG's jurisdiction in the given context (even though Mr. Baksi himself was strongly inclined to agree with me), and we didn't process the red-hot material for the CAG's audit report.  

Anyway, it wasn't really wasted, for I could use it so colorfully in my column India of C-A-G in THE HINDU twenty years later!

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