Friday, April 06, 2012

The Man Who Kicked The Hornet's Nest

By Swapan Dasgupta

There are two terms the keep recurring in the chatter over the drama surrounding the recent actions of the Army chief General V.K. Singh: ‘sadness’ and ‘concern’ verging on ‘anger’.

There is the ritual expression of sadness that any controversy surrounding the armed forces and particularly the Army chief should have become a subject of public discourse. There is sadness that a Defence Minister with a reputation for saintliness should have become embroiled in a controversy that implicitly involves sleaze.

At the same time, there is concern over the fate of a national institution that must remain above partisan politics. Yet the concern spills over into outright anger at the mere suggestion that General Singh is at odds with retired officers and the civilian-controlled Ministry of Defence. “Does General Singh think he’s in Pakistan?” asked former National Security Adviser Brajesh Mishra, articulating the rage of the High Church of the Indian Establishment, “He’s gone berserk. In a democracy the civilian authority is in charge.” Equally lofty concerns were articulated by sections of the media that charged the General with waging war on India and even plotting an extremely amateurish coup.

In a strictly Constitutional sense the anger of a high-minded Establishment is understandable. It would be a sad day if senior officers of the armed forces function without regard to the elected government. In the past, allegations of unilateralism were levelled against General Thimayya, General Sundarji and Admiral Vishnu Bhagwat. With the exception of Admiral Bhagwat who was peremptorily sacked, the differences involving Generals Thimayya and Sundarji were not allowed to come to a head. With a grasp of politics that is in keeping with contemporary realities, Defence Minister A.K. Antony too has preferred a more conciliatory approach than many of the hotheads who demanded General Singh’s head on a platter.

Antony’s cautious approach appears to have been guided by both pragmatic and ethical considerations. He knew, for example, that an already beleaguered government could not afford a fresh controversy, particularly one that involved charges of possible fiscal improprieties. With only a couple of months left for General Singh to demit office, he felt it far more prudent to grin and bear it.

But Antony is more than just a politician with a reputation for playing it safe. As one of the few practitioners of ethical politics in the system, he was aware of two things. First, that despite the unorthodox manner in which General Singh brought the Rs 14-crore bribe offer to the public attention, the Army chief was essentially a soldier with a fierce attachment to old-school values such as honour and uprightness. Secondly, the Defence Minister was also aware that General Singh’s misgivings over the army’s purchase of Tatra trucks were real. Finally, Antony must have come to know that the leak of General Singh’s letter to the Prime Minister on the lack of defence preparedness was not the doing of the chief Army chief.

Whether Antony is aware of the identity of the person who leaked the letter, hoping the blame would be laid at the door of General Singh, is a matter of conjecture. What is however curious is that even after Antony ordered a CBI inquiry into possible foul play in the purchase of Tatra trucks and began work to streamline and hasten the pace of decision-making in defence purchases, the intensity of the offensive against General Singh doubled. Why, for example, have various bodies rushed in to gratuitously offer certificates of good health to the Tatra? Why is there an attempt to suggest that General Singh is more than just a painfully self-righteous man? That he is in fact capable of attempting a coup?

There is an old Chinese saying “When the finger points to the moon, the idiot points to the finger”. When General Singh pointed to something strange about the pricing of military vehicles and the dependence on just one supplier for over 26 years, why was there a desperate attempt to shift the terms of the debate and focus on the supposed madness of General Singh? Has General Singh unwittingly stirred a hornet’s nest?

There is a section of a very rotten Delhi Establishment that has come to interpret civilian control over the armed forces as the freedom of the military and Defence Ministry to be completely outside the realm of public scrutiny. Since defence is a matter of national concern and accounts for the largest head of expenditure in the Union Budget, this is an unacceptable proposition. Operational autonomy should not be detached from an overall sense of budgetary accountability.

Equally unacceptable is the suggestion that the public intrusiveness that accompanied the purchase of Bofors guns in 1986-7 was responsible for the procrastination that has marked the purchase of defence hardware, particularly in the past decade. The problem with the Bofors guns was not about quality but centred on the issue of price. Did the Indian exchequer pay too much and was the mark-up a result of kickbacks? This question is also at the heart of the Tatra truck deal where the buffer role of a public sector unit deserves closer scrutiny.

By pretending that these questions are mala-fide, the Indian Establishment has demonstrated that it is unwilling to address the very issues that agitate civil society. General Singh has asked the right questions. We now await the credible answers.

Asian Age/ Deccan Chronicle, April 6, 2012

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