Saturday, March 31, 2012

Army chief has done nation a service

By Swapan Dasgupta

It is to the credit of India’s Defence Minister—the man who has earned for himself the lofty title of Saint Antony—that he resisted the clamour of many parliamentarians to either sack Army chief V.K. Singh or order him to take compulsory leave pending retirement in eight weeks. It is said that Antony told indignant Cabinet colleagues that he did not want “blood on his hands.”

Antony’s act of statesmanship plus his very belated decision to order a CBI inquiry into the accusations levelled by the Army chief against a retired officer and the associated murkiness centred on the purchase of heavy vehicles has at least lowered the temperature. At the same time, it has brought into the public domain another potential defence scandal which, if it plays out, may have damaging consequences for the government.

True, the controversy over the Army chief’s allegations have not yet reached the emotive heights of the furore over the Bofors artillery guns. But that is not because the charges are trivial or born out of self-centredness. When it comes to matters concerning the armed forces, the Indian political class still exercises exemplary restraint—even if some MPs broke that understanding and demanded General Singh’s immediate dismissal.

That restraint is complemented by the all-round acknowledgement of Antony’s personal integrity. Antony may well be charged with procrastination and even indecisiveness but few will argue that he is guided by base, pecuniary considerations. Both Manmohan Singh and Sonia Gandhi should thank their lucky stars that General Singh was reporting to Antony. Any other person in the Raksha Mantri’s chair and the muck would have well and truly hit the ceiling.

The chances of that happening cannot be entirely discounted, particularly if the CBI departs from its usual ways and actually applies its mind to getting to the bottom of the grave charges relating to the sale of Tatra trucks. Prima facie, there appears to be something odd about a Czech-based, NRI-owned company exercising a complete 20-year monopoly over the supply of trucks to the army. That the imports were routed through a public sector company does not lessen the suspicion: it merely suggests that the tentacles of the arrangement go beyond the army and embrace a section of the civilian bureaucracy.

A proper inquiry into the shadowy world of defence contracts may reveal a great deal that could even startle India’s already cynical citizenry. Certainly, emerging tit-bits of information about front companies claiming to be what they are not, supplies routed through bodies specialising in escort services, and compromised diplomats and babus serve to confirm the impression that General Singh did the nation a great service by making the charges public.

On his part, and despite his initial emulation of Gandhiji’s three monkeys, we should be grateful to Antony for at least acknowledging that there is some possible evil in the world and ordering an inquiry. Only relentless public and political pressure will now ensure that the inquiry is conducted with seriousness and doesn’t become an opportunity to fudge the real issues.

The desperation on the part of those who have something to hide to keep the focus on General Singh prompted the leak of his state-of-defence-preparedness letter to the Prime Minister. If the investigators are serious, it shouldn’t take them too long to narrow the suspects to a handful of individuals. This, in turn, should provide revealing answers as to why they were so driven to engineer a situation whereby General Singh’s continuation in office would become the central issue of the controversy.  

Yet, even a leak of this most privileged of communications has its upside. The country is now aware that India’s defence preparedness to meet external threats is abysmal, and that procrastination over the purchase of military hardware has made the country vulnerable. The fact that the Army chief’s assessment corresponds to what strategic experts have long been saying must not prompt a so-what-is-new response. There is a difference between a TV pundit saying that India is unprepared to meet threats and the Army chief asserting quite independently that this is indeed so.

Neither the Prime Minister nor the Defence Minister can run away from answering this grave charge. Defence is the largest head of expenditure in the Union Budget and, so far, the unwritten political convention is that the budgetary allotment for defence is passed without any discussion. This implies that both the nation and Parliament have reposed blind trust in the Government to do whatever is necessary to protect India. If, despite this large expenditure, the Army chief complains about lack of ammunition and obsolescent equipment, it suggests that the Defence Minister has failed in his responsibilities. If, on top of these problems of hardware, there is evidence that the corruption that has sullied India’s attempts at governance has also started affecting decision-making in the Defence Ministry, there is every cause to question the legitimacy of the sainthood that has been conferred on Antony.

Every democratic country expects its ministers to live up the trust that has been reposed on them by the people. In his long political life, Antony has shown he is a good man and the country must admire his ability to remain good amid an overall climate of murkiness. But being good doesn’t mean that a minister should be content just being good. Antony has failed the test of effectiveness.

Sunday Pioneer, April 1, 2012 

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