If General V. K Singh has lost the government’s confidence, he should go
The Indian Express story about the ‘curious’ movement of two military formations has set at least one rumor to rest: It is possible indeed to elicit a response from Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh—all you have to do is to mention the ‘C’ word. But in all seriousness, the entire episode is rather troubling—not just as an indicator of the breakdown of the civil-military relationship but also how this public drama is causing immense damage to the authority of the civilian government and long-vaued institutional relationships.
As The Acorn points out, given its national security implications and its perceived closeness to the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO), it is implausible that a story of this nature could have released without the approval of the highest echelons of the Indian government. Now, there is nothing malfeasant about the newspapes report per se: Even if it was a simple case of lack of communication, the very fact that the government was allegedly spooked enough to summon the defense secretary urgently makes its newsworthy. However, the truth is likely to be less savory.
In recent months the media has been a willing accomplice to the constant sniping between Army chief General V.K. Singh and the defense ministry. General Singh is hardly blameless in this case as he has adroitly exploited the media oxygen to strengthen his case against the government (Vinod Mehta of the Outlook magazine recently claimed that General Singh has been calling up top journalists promising masala). As Kanchan Gupta explains in this excellent op-ed, the media is now a player in the lucrative defense acquisition business.
So here’s what may have happened: The Army establishment permitted troop movements in a sensitive area without following the proper procedures probably as an act if simple defiance ( Let’s show the civilians their place!). Considering the strained relationship between the government and the army chief, the government was genuinely worried at that time but now it is exploiting this issue to show the army establishment in poor light. Leaking this story may simply then be a case of the government getting back at General Singh. After all, in the Indian context, even the very thought of military takeover is an absolute anathema and completely unacceptable
If this account is true—-and its certainly possible that the actual explanation is far less dramatic—then it does no credit either to the government or the army. Irrespective of the nature of General Singh’s complaints against the defense ministry, he serves at the pleasure of the President. If he has lost the confidence of the government—and it clearly appears to be the case—then it should ease him out or at least ensure that he is sent on compulsory leave: Converting it into a full-fledged public spectacle has surely done the government little credit. Even if General Singh was genuinely victimized over his date of birth, he simply cannot serve a government whose confidence he clearly lacks. The NDA government’s action against Admiral Vishnu Bhagwat established a strong precedent in case of conflicts of this nature.
However, little can be expected from either Mr. Antony or Dr. Singh—weak, vacillating men who are more concerned with their personal reputation than institutional integrity. Unfortunately, the situation is only likely to worsen in an era of weak central governments. The Supreme Court already dictates policy and if the government remains dysfunctional, it is likely to face more institutional crises like its current stand off with the army chief.
Final point: It is not clear why the nameless and faceless Indian soldier is dragged into every discussion on civil-military relationship and homage paid to his sacrifice and valor. Let’s be clear: The conflict here is a turf war between the civil and military bureaucracies. Conflicts of this nature are common in every democracy; what is troubling is the utter failure of the government and the army to establish and articulate a new civil-military order. Merely because one side sports uniforms does not make it inherently superior. The Army establishment has been shielded from scrutiny by the sacrifices its jawans and young officers make. For instance, General Singh happily extrapolated his izzat to that of the army merely on a matter of administrative detail—how ridiculous is that? There are many upright officers in the government who deliver yeoman service to the Indian people often in the remotest parts of the country. Surely their performance and sacrifice should not stop us from asking tough questions of the civilian establishment. The same yardstick needs to be applied to the army.