Inactive Minister And Hyperactive General
Usually, I am not comfortable with matters pertaining to economics. That is why rarely I follow Finance Minister’s presentation of the Annual Budgets in Parliament. It is true that Budget-features are important to know the contours of the country’s defence and foreign policy, subjects that I have been following for years. But the tragedy is that hardly Indian Parliament debates and discusses lively on these subjects. Of course, of late, there has been a slight improvement on the front of foreign policy, with issues pertaining to globalisation, immigration and the wellbeing of the Indians abroad catching scanty attention of our law makers from time to time. But as far as the defence issues are concerned, they are hardly bothered. I do not remember when it was last that our Parliament witnessed a healthy intervention on the highly inadequate defence expenditure of the country. Defence allocations are hardly debated. Even reports of the two high-powered committees—the Kelkar and the Rama Rao panels—about the challenges to India’s acquisition procedures and the need for better efficiency of defence public sectors, Defence Research Development Organisation remains shrouded in secrecy.
That is why I have often argued that it is high time for a change in the mindset of the South Block. India’s security is too important a subject to be left alone for being handled by the Defence Minister and his Babus.
It is against this background that one may argue that the commotion over the recent developments involving Army Chief, General VK Singh and Defence Minister AK Antony in both the houses of Parliament on March 28 was a healthy development. But alas, it was not! The commotion had more to do with emotion than with reason. It had nothing to do with the real issues. And that was because most of those who shouted vehemently and demanded the sacking of General Singh had hardly followed defence. Their forte has been targeting individuals, that too on hearsays, not on research or hard facts. They wanted General Singh’s head on the notion that he or his officials have deliberately leaked a confidential report that he had written to the Prime Minister. How did they know that it was leaked by the General? After all, the letter was apparently written on March 12. It was leaked a fortnight later. In the meantime, the Prime Minister must have read that and presumably suggested some actions. And in doing that his officials must have been involved.
Now, my argument (for the sake of it) is that why it could not be some Officials in the Prime Minister’s Office who have leaked the report. And if that is the case, will these parliamentarians baying for the General’s blood tender an apology? It is good that the government has ordered an enquiry by the Intelligence Bureau to find out the source of the leakage. My sixth sense says that the leakage has not been from General Singh’s side. Otherwise, he would not have asserted on March 29: “I have nothing to do with it. The leak of the letter should be treated as high treason. This cynical approach to tarnish my reputation has to be stopped. The source of leak has to be found and dealt with ruthlessly.”
For me, the content of the leaked document is more important. And going by that content—that the Indian Army is in a pathetic shape because of the shortage of modern arms and ammunition—there is nothing new in what the General wrote. That the Indian Army is under-equipped is a well-known secret. In fact, the General had written the same to the Defence Minister in the beginning of March, something which every newspaper reported, but without any commotion from our parliamentarians. Not to speak of other sources, in its latest report on the armed forces, the Public Accounts Committee of the Parliament had highlighted the Indian Army’s woes. Unfortunately, the parliamentarians hardly bothered about this poor state of affairs. Instead, some of them are finding fault with General Singh’s timing of the report, saying why he was silent before and saying all this just two months before his retirement? However, I am told that it is a standard practice of the Chiefs of the services to present to the Defence Minister/Prime Minister the state of affairs of their respective force around the time they exit their office. In fact, a former Naval Chief did that just one day prior to his retirement!
Of course, all this is not to suggest that everything is fine with the relationship between Antony and General Singh. Far from it. The way the General brought out his age-issue (going by his real age, his retirement year is 2013, not 2012) and the way Antony dealt with it left much to be desired. The General’s frustration with Antony got further confounded when civilian officers who man the South Block office of Antony scuttled most of the endeavours by the Army to procure fresh arms and ammunition. In fact, that explains why in January, General Singh had publicly remarked: “The procurement game is a version of snakes and ladders where there is no ladder but only snakes, and if the snakes bite you somewhere, the whole thing comes back to zero.” His comment was understandable in the wake of the Army’s efforts over 10 years in buying new artillery going in vain, thanks to the civilian-controlled Ministry of Defence (MoD) blacklisting six foreign defence contractors. So much so that the allocated money for the Army in last year’s budget remained unspent. What was all the more pathetic that in the last quarter, the Finance Ministry asked the MoD to postpone signing of new purchase contracts to after March 31, 2012, the next financial year!
Now, we have been told by General Singh that in the year 2010, he had brought a concrete case of attempted bribe to him to Antony. This revelation through a select interview to the press last fortnight has also stirred Parliament and Antony has been forced to put the blame on the General by saying that the latter did not want to pursue the case and failed to give him the complaint in writing. This again is surprising because as the chief executive of the country’s defence, it is Antony who should have initiated a probe without waiting for the General giving a written complaint. If something is written is so mandatory, on what basis has Antony now called for a CBI probe into the matter?
In this particular case, one can question General Sigh’s timing. Why is he revealing now something that took place two years ago? I think that this move on his part has something to do with the widening gulf between him and the Defence Minister. And, in turn, this is something that the civilian officers in the MoD are taking great advantage of, to the chagrin of the Army. This explains why at the slightest pretext, the MoD is blacklisting the foreign vendors from whom the Army wants to procure its much-needed arms and ammunition.
Besides, there are merits in the contention that despite his undoubted talents, General Singh has been promoting groupism within the Army and playing to public gallery for building his image. He once agreed with a TV journalist that Lt Col Prasad S Purohit was a “Hindu terrorist” for his alleged involvement in the Samjhauta train blasts. And this was despite the fact that Purohit is yet to be formally chargesheeted, let alone convicted. Incidentally, Swami Aseemanand, on whose confessions Hindu terrorists’ role in the train blast has been based, now tells the court that his statement was extracted forcibly by the investigating agencies! Given this, I think it would have been proper for the Army Chief to reply that the law would take its own course and Purohit, if found guilty, would be dealt with accordingly. Instead, what he did was that he pronounced Purohit guilty just because it was politically correct for his image building.
General Singh has also not shown the maturity in dealing with the much-maligned Adarsh Housing Society in Mumbai. The charges were that in the name of Kargil War widows, top officials of the armed forces formed a housing society in the land belonging to the Defence Ministry. He took the charges very seriously, ordered enquiries and threatened to take actions against the wrong-doers. The truth, as it has emerged now, is that the application for the formation of the Society did not refer to the war widows and what is more important, the Defence Ministry has admitted in an affidavit submitted to Mumbai High Court that it has no record of the land in question to prove ownership!
Be that as it may, General Singh’s tenure will be remembered by posterity as a turbulent phase as far as the relationship between the Army and the civil leadership is concerned. And as has been argued elsewhere in this issue, both the Defence Minister and the Army Chief are to be blamed for this. If Antony has been a Minister of inactions, Singh has been a Chief of hyperactions, though both of them are men of impeccable personal integrity.
By Prakash Nanda