Arms And The Man
- Sivaram Srikandath
Story Dated: Monday, April 23, 2012 11:37 hrs IST
When the kerfuffle regarding General V.K.Singh's age surfaced a few months ago, I was, quite frankly, a bit put off by the General's behaviour. Of course, I was convinced that he was telling the truth about his date of birth.
It was downrigt ridiculous to even conjecture that the Chief of the Indian army - a third generation career officer who was a 1971 war veteran and a topper of the US Army's gruelling Rangers Course would be lying about his age.
Also, there was enough documented evidence to establish that he was indeed born in 1951 - matriculation certificate, PAN card, driving licence, passport, Service I-card, among other items - and not 1950 as the Defence Ministry wanted him to accept.
The age controversy was the result of a bureaucratic mistake - the Adjutant General Branch and the Military Secretary Branch had two sets of his date of birth; one having May 10, 1951 and another May 10, 1950. And it was quite evident that the official machinery, for whatever be their convoluted reasoning, was not ready to own up to their mistake. Instead, they were adamant that the General accept 1950 as his year of birth, and demit office a year earlier than he should have to.
My sympathies lay with the Army Chief, for I did not expect the Government of India to show any sense of fairplay in the matter. However, as the senior most officer of one of the largest armies in the world, I expected the General to maintain a stiff upper lip, and take it on the chin like a true soldier. After all, dignity and decorum under pressure are traits that one expects from an officer and a gentleman. At the very least, I thought he would be guided by the motto of his alma mater, the NDA - seva paramo dharma, or service before self. I was disappointed when he chose not to do so, and instead approached the Supreme Court of India for redressal. It was an unfortunate situation, without precedent, and did not augur well for the country.
So, I was relieved when the Supreme Court refused to entertain the petition, thus forcing the General to withdraw his plea. I thought the matter was now settled and that the good soldier would ride into the sunset on May 31st, his honour salvaged to some extent by this consoling statement offered by the Attorney General Goolam Vahanavati - "The Union government had never questioned General Singh's integrity or bona fides but contested his petition as a matter of principle, which did not cast any reflection on his ability to lead the Army."
However, the canny soldier was not prepared to "go gently into that good night," but was getting ready "to rage against the dying of the light." Barely two months shy of demitting office, General V.K. Singh has carried the battle into the Government's turf by opening up a Pandora's box of allegations of corruption, critical deficiencies in procurement of military equipment and modernization of the armed forces, and gaps in the operational preparedness of the second largest army in the world, which is required to fight a two-front war. Maybe unnecessary retaliatory action on the part of the General; but valid issues, all.
Now the fur has started flying. And how !
The sequence of events is interesting, First of all came the allegation that the Army Chief had misused telephone tapping facilities to eavesdrop in on what senior Ministry of Defence officials may have been discussing about his age controversy. This was followed by an interview given by the General to a regional TV channel in which he claimed that he was offered a bribe of Rs. 14 crore by a senior retired officer to clear the purchase a consignment of Kolos Tatra transport vehicles. Defence Minister Antony later on admitted that the Army Chief had indeed, verbally informed him about the said offer. The very next day, the General's letter to the Prime Minister, in which he had complained about the poor preparedness of the armed forces to respond to a war was mysteriously leaked to the media, casting further aspersions on the General's intentions.
Finally came the icing on the cake. On April 4, a leading national Daily, in a sensational front page story titled, "The January Night Raisina Hill was Spooked," by-lined by (among others) its editor-in-chief, reported that political alarm bells may have been triggered off on the foggy night of January 16, this year, when intelligence agencies detected an army battalion from the Hissar based 33 Armoured Division, and a Special Forces unit from the Agra based 50 (Independent) Parachute brigade moving unexpectedly towards the national capital. While the dreaded word "coup"was not mentioned in the story, there was enough talk about "confusion and unease" in the top echelons of the Government to drop salacious hints of suspicion of praetorian motives on the part of the Army Chief. Fortunately, the rest of our media chose to regard this report as merely alarrmist, and for once, even politicians across the spectrum rallied around the proverbial flag in trashing the report as mischievous cavil. All talk about the dreaded "c" word have now been dismissed as sheer nonsense; purely the creation of febrile minds in a sensation hungry media.
However, I cannot but help ponder over the curious concatenation of events, and wonder whether or not vested interests are involved in this sordid affair One can see the hidden hand of the defence procurement lobby behind the move to discredit the Army Chief, who is well known for his probity in professional life. The Indian arms bazaar is worth upwards of $100 billion, and the deal makers cannot afford to have an honest man meddling in the manner in which this money is spent or ill-spent. A squeaky clean Defence Minister is pain enough; but to have to deal with an upright soldier as well !! That calls for drastic action. So, why not come up with a plan that discredits both the Defence Minister and the Army Chief in one fell swoop.
So, rope in a gullible (or pliable, depending upon your point of view !) media, line the pockets of a few venal politicians (of whom there are plenty) , and use the services of greedy bureaucrats and retired servicemen (no dearth at all of members of this tribe) to finesse and sweeten every deal. And wunderbar, you have put in place an effective policy of zero tolerance of honesty.
The arms merchants win ! Yet again.