Mail Today Bureau.
The political leadership in any other institutional democracy would have fired General V.K. Singh in the wake of his relentless fusillade of revelations targeting the government – the latest salvo being the leaked letter to the Prime Minister in which he presented a grim picture of the force’s battle-preparedness.
For the first time, the Indian Army – in the shape of its chief – has openly crossed swords with the executive. In the process, the General has sullied the image of the very institution he heads.
He has reached the point of no return, leaving behind a huge stink and making his position as the man at the helm of one of the largest armies in the world untenable.
Yet the ruling coalition, in the grip of a severe policy paralysis, failed Indian parliamentary democracy again on Wednesday by mouthing inanities rather than summarily giving General Singh marching orders.
That the country’s systemic inadequacies were showcased at a time when Chinese President Hu Jintao was in town for the BRICS summit meant a further blow had been dealt to the prestige of the largest democracy in the world.
Through a series of interviews and leaked letters describing the sorry state of the army, the General has shown what frustration can do even to a fine officer. But in democratic societies, even a whiff of challenge to the civilian authority needs to be decisively snuffed out.
Witness the pathetic attempts of Defence Minister A.K. Antony to convince Parliament about India’s defence-preparedness, hours after the army chief’s totally contrary views became public knowledge. “Since this matter has been raised, I wish to assure the House – and through the House the nation – that the government is determined to continue to do all that is necessary to ensure the security and defence of India,” Antony told Parliament on a wimpish note.
Contrast this with what General Singh said in his leaked letter.
“…The state of the major (fighting) arms i.e. mechanised forces, artillery, air defence, infantry and special forces, as well as the engineers and signals, is indeed alarming. The army is devoid of critical ammunition to defeat enemy tanks, while the air defence system is 97 per cent obsolete…The infantry is crippled with deficiencies of crew served weapon,” the army chief informed Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in a letter dated March 12, 2012.
The missive, which in tone and tenor suggested it was meant more for public consumption, conveniently found its way onto the front page of a national daily. South Block officials felt that the army chief, in his last days in office, was leaving the house in complete disarray for his successor, Lieutenant-General Bikram Singh, who is scheduled to take over on May 31.
General Singh’s view about the state of the army was shared by his predecessor, General Deepak Kapoor. Former air force chief S.P. Tyagi also had a similar opinion about the services wing he headed. Another case in point was that of Admiral Vijai Singh Shekhawat who, on September 28, 1996, wrote to the PM pointing out vital deficiencies in ship performance levels.
But never has the military top brass disseminated facts about India’s defence-preparedness with such cavalier disregard for the country’s sense of security.
Wednesday’s development came on top of acrimony between the army chief and the government in the last two days over his media interview in which he had claimed that he was offered a bribe of Rs.14 crore by a retired Lieutenant-General for swinging a sub-standard defence deal.
Even the timing of the leakage of his damning letter was questioned, with parliamentarians asserting that it was linked to his frustration over his age issue. According to Congress leader and overseas affairs minister Vayalar Ravi, the episode was a result of the army chief’s “frustration” and he had “crossed a line”. “(General Singh) could not get an extension even by the court. Maybe, a frustrated man suffers,” he said.
Ravi was referring to General Singh’s failed attempt to settle the issue of his age by approaching the Supreme Court, which had firmly struck down his contention that his date of birth is May 10, 1951 – a claim that would have pushed back the army chief’s retirement by a year.
It is quite apparent now that when General Singh lost the legal battle over his age with the government, he had chalked out a strategy to keep upping the ante as the date of his demitting office drew closer.
The Leader of the Opposition in the Lok Sabha, Sushma Swaraj, raised pertinent doubts: “Why did the army chief not raise the issue earlier (two years ago) or do anything about it (himself)? We want a clear explanation from the government.”
But the government was clearly not in a position to explain. Three options were said to have been discussed among ministers and Congress members. The first was that the army chief should be sacked forthwith, the second that he should be forced to go on compulsory leave and the third that he should be tolerated till the end of May when his tenure ends.
Reasons such as the BRICS summit being underway and the passage of the finance Bill were cited to explain the indecision over the issue. Around 11.30 am on Wednesday, after the issue rocked both Houses of Parliament, a visibly worried PM went into a huddle with Antony and home minister P. Chidambaram. Defence secretary Shashikant Sharma was also present.
What, however, followed was not action but mere posturing.
The defence minister made a tame statement in the Rajya Sabha when it reassembled at 12 pm. “Leakage of secret communication within the government cannot serve our national security… After consulting the Prime Minister and colleagues, we will take appropriate action.”
The minister was clearly not able to convince the Leader of the Opposition in the Rajya Sabha, Arun Jaitley, who asserted: “If such leakages are permitted, there is no point in saying that you do not want such matters to be part of any acrimonious debate. Such media reports on the army can only lower the morale of the soldiers.”
SP leader Ramgopal Yadav, JD-U MP Shivanand Tiwari, RJD chief Lalu Prasad and NCP leader Tariq Anwar publicly sought the army chief’s dismissal for “breaching confidentiality and compromising institutional integrity”.
To be sure, Antony has waffled and vacillated during his stint as the country’s defence minister and played it too safe to keep his clean image intact. Several high-ranking former officers and the top echelon of defence experts have evinced genuine concern about the country’s battle-preparedness because policy decisions have not been taken with alacrity.
Should defence agents then be legalised? Despite the prevalent ban on agents, MoD officials are known to often get in touch with them surreptitiously, share information, discuss requirements and product pricing and, most importantly, liaise for trials.
The erstwhile NDA government, led by former PM Atal Bihari Vajpayee, had acted on the then CVC’s report which recommended an open system for the registration of defence agents so that the procurement process could be made more transparent. The CVC was of the view that bestowing the legal tag upon agents would cut down corruption. But the UPA dispensation shot down the proposal after taking charge.
-via India Today.