Two men, both with rock-solid reputations for integrity. In any other circumstance, they would have made for a great team to lead the nation’s defence forces. Instead, they have been pushed into doing battle with each other. One, possibly the “victim” of “a hidden agenda”, refuses to take things lying down. The other—his political boss—hobbled by the remote-control handling of his ministry by people more powerful than him, can do nothing more than wring his hands in despair.
The General V.K. Singh saga is destined to go down as one more example of the UPA government’s misgovernance, irrespective of whether the army chief goes now or in May, when he’s due to retire. The redeeming aspect of the entire fracas, though, is the issues it has thrown up. Is there something drastically wrong with the armed forces’ interface with the civilian leadership? Why are the armed forces’ concerns on defence security and preparedness not being addressed? How powerful is the shadow of the arms lobbies in senior defence appointments and vital procurements of arms and equipment? The questions are piling up thick and fast, and the needle of responsibility has slowly but surely shifted from defence minister A.K. Antony to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and his leadership. It is now clear that as the UPA government busied itself in battling scam after scam, it reacted to the growing disquiet within the armed forces with petty point-scoring.
In the last six years since Antony has been the defence minister, a chair he occupied after Pranab Mukherjee vacated it to move to the finance ministry, his handling of his charge has been viewed with dismay by defence-watchers. He is in many ways perceived to be of the same mould as his prime minister. Their personal image may be blemishless, but both are seen as ineffective leaders presiding over a growing culture of “anarchy and chaos” around them. Would the army chief’s controversy have played out the way it’s doing currently had it been capped with some deft handling early on? The UPA government, and Antony in particular, underestimated V.K. Singh’s capacity to take the “injustices done to him and to the army” to their logical conclusion. “This is spinning out of control,” says Major General Ravi Arora (retd), who heads defence magazine Indian Military Review, “because we have a weak leadership in Antony. He has not even exercised his discretion on a small thing like the DoB controversy which, if handled maturely, would not have landed the defence establishment in an embarrassment. This is undoubtedly bad leadership which is allowing unaccounted-for bureaucrats to have their way. Just being honest won’t do.”
All through the DoB controversy, V.K. Singh’s team had pointed to the role of frustrated arms dealers in having him out of the way because he refused to toe their line. The names of two army chiefs also came up, one of whom (J.J. Singh) the army chief himself raised in an interview to Outlook last month. The question of just who is out to get him assumes importance in the light of all this. As Adm L. Ramdas (retd) points out, “I’m concerned about who is benefiting from all this? It deflects attention from the main issue flagged off by the army chief.”
Indeed it has. Says Adm Vishnu Bhagwat (retd), “He is clearly being framed by arms lobbies. The pregnant statement is the one made by this person who offered him the bribe. That ‘people before you have taken and people after you will take’.” Bhagwat, who is the only naval chief to be sacked while in office—for refusing to appoint a government favourite as his deputy chief of naval staff—goes on to explain, “The arms dealers are 99 per cent foreign companies who have Indian agents here. The disturbing thing is that the intelligence services of foreign countries—such as the MI-6, CIA and Australian intelligence—ride piggypack on these Indian agents who also double up as informers! Not just that, they subvert the services and MoD by getting people on their payrolls. The embassies are in the know and facilitate these operations to benefit their own defence industries. It is well known that these lobbies plan the careers of officers on their payrolls. Way back in 1985, we knew who’d be the air chief at that time, because of a particular person’s proximity to arms dealers. Who will guard the guards?”
Is something similar at play in the present episode? What was in the realm of conjecture till a few days ago is now crystallising before the public gaze. As Col R.S.N. Singh, a former officer of the Research and Analysis Wing and a defence analyst, says, “The arms lobby has become so powerful that they decide who will be chief and how long his tenure will be. Knowing V.K.’s reputation for honesty, it was obvious to these lobbies that he had to be moved out after two years so that a more pliable person could be installed. The DoB issue was manufactured to limit his tenure, but the chief eventually went to court to sort it out. The court left the matter open and did not take a decisive view. They concluded that the resultant embarrassment would make V.K. Singh resign. But he was made of sterner stuff and refused to resign (refer Outlook interview, Mar 12). The lobby then began to build up a case to sack him. The anonymous letter which the government took note of, regarding snooping in the defence minister’s office, was aimed at this end. The latest leak should also be seen through the same lens. They want him out soon—which means now!”
What makes it worse is that all this is happening under the watch of one of India’s most honest defence ministers ever. Even after spending six years heading a challenging ministry, Antony has made little effort to understand the ethos of the services or the issues and sensibilities that rule their world. Service officers point to how he is the very antithesis of the dynamic service environment which lays great premium on ‘josh’ and competence.
Few, therefore, could quarrel with the contents of Gen V.K. Singh’s letter to the prime minister. Its ‘leak’, though, had MPs from the Samajwadi party, the JD(U), the CPI(M), and even the Congress’s own Harshvardhan Singh, demanding that V.K. Singh be shown the door. However, a scathing rebuttal from the general—“This (leaking of a top secret letter) is an act of high treason and the persons responsible for it should be punished”—and the soaring approval for his actions subsequently led to a rethink. By Thursday evening, the mood in the government had changed, the evidence of which came in the conciliatory tone Antony set in his press conference. He described the leak as “an anti-national act”, and tasked the Intelligence Bureau to get to the bottom of it. Rather than sack the army chief in a rush, the best way forward, say sources, would be to watch how the situation unfolds. Removing V.K. Singh would only leave him looking like a martyr. A senior leader in the Congress party says, “Sacking the chief will only hurt the government and the defence minister. If we do that, we will give more ammunition to our critics. The government will not only be blamed for inaction but will also be called intolerant.”
The BJP, careful to project its seriousness on issues of national security, adopted a two-pronged approach on the matter, with leaders like Jaswant Singh slamming the government, and Leader of Opposition Arun Jaitley expressing concern over the leak. As of now, the general has got a reprieve. Once Parliament adjourns, the knives will once again be out for him. “The government has been driven to a wall this time,” warns Adm Bhagwat. “It will bide its time and strike back like it did with me in 1998. If I were VK, I would not trust these conciliatory moves.” The saga continues. Watch this space.
Dramatis Personae: Who’s Who In The V.K. Singh Saga
Rafale Sour grapes?
10 Unanswered Questions In V.K. Singh Affair
3 Months That Shook The Army And Government
Army and civilian officials have sparred before, but it is the first time they are doing it through the media, capturing the nation’s attention. At the root of this still-unravelling controversy is the age row involving the army chief that went up to the Supreme Court in January this year.
March 2 A report in India Today alleges Gen V.K. Singh misused tapping facilities to listen in on what senior defence ministry officials were discussing about his age controversy. Army denies this outright, issues a press release accusing ex-Defence Intelligence Agency head, Lt Gen Tejinder Singh, of planting these stories.
March 17 ETV Rajasthan airs interview of Gen V.K. Singh with Santosh Bharatiya of Chauthi Duniya in which he claims he was offered a Rs 14 crore bribe by a senior retired army officer to clear a consignment of substandard vehicles
March 26 Gen Singh repeats the charge in an interview with The Hindu. The claim stalls Parliament proceedings for two days in a row
March 27 Defence minister A.K. Antony admits Gen Singh verbally complained about the offer, names Lt Gen Tejinder Singh. Says Gen V.K. Singh did not want to act further or file a written complaint. Orders a CBI probe.
March 27 Lt Gen Tejinder Singh files a defamation case against the army chief. Tatra too threatens suit.
March 28 The army chief’s March 12 letter written to the PM, in which he draws attention to the poor preparedness of the armed forces, is leaked to DNA and Dainik Bhaskar newspapers. SP, JD(U) demand the chief be dismissed. Government orders Intelligence Bureau to probe leak.
March 29 V.K. Singh denies he had anything to do with leak of the letter; calls leak “high treason”.
March 29 Indian Express reports that Gen V.K. Singh forwarded a letter written by TMC MP Ambica Banerjee to CBI alleging a procurement scam in the Special Frontier Force (SFF) under Lt Gen Dalbir Singh Suhag.
6 Options Before Warring Parties
By Chander Suta Dogra with Anuradha Raman and Prarthna Gahilote
Apropos your cover story (Officer, Gentleman and the Army Mess, Apr 9), why is the media wasting time alluding to the COAS’s letter leak? The person who leaked the army chief’s letter little realised that it’s part of his duties to write regularly to the MoD and government. As for defence budget cuts, I remember accompanying Gen K. Sundarji in 1986 to a meeting with then FM, N.D. Tiwari. Sure enough, within minutes into the meeting the latter said he had a shortfall and wanted to cut Rs 500 crore (about Rs 7,500 crore at current prices) from the defence budget. There was an uproar from the service chiefs but to no avail. Two days later, the amount was withdrawn from our budget. The chiefs then jointly wrote a letter to defence minister K.C. Pant highlighting the operational deficiencies—much like the present COAS—but nothing happened. After six months, a reply signed by a joint secy came saying the government was aware and necessary action would be taken. It is still being taken.
Lt Gen S.K. Bahri (retd), on e-mail
Both A.K. Antony and the COAS have faltered, the former by delaying decisions in his anxiety to say, ‘Look, my hands are clean’, and V.K. Singh by perversely resorting to a classic military strategy (the scorched earth policy) just because he was roundly defeated in the ‘Battle of the DoBs’.
Rajesh Ramachandra, Bangalore
There have been too many ‘Mr Cleans’ in this country for any good to come out of it—Rajiv Gandhi, Manmohan and now Antony. Not to forget the good general.
S.S. Nagaraj, Bangalore
It’s evident that there’s an institutional breakdown in the MoD which is the root cause of all this brouhaha. Antony or someone else must fix this at the earliest. The people demand an explanation from the upa for its lackadaisical policy on defence preparedness.
C. Koshy John, Pune
A revelation in all this is that after all these years we are still importing substandard trucks for defence use. What is the drdo doing? If they are not up to it, why not go to private players? Tatas, Ashok Leyland etc make trucks for the world, why not use their expertise?
T.N. Misra, on e-mail
It is the criminal silence of those in the highest positions that has put the nation in grave danger. A clean image counts for nothing, their spinelessness is costing us our peace.
The Congress should shuffle Antony and Manmohan out of the pack. They are incompetent and, worse, are liable for neglect of their duties.
Bikash Chakravarty, Noida
Knowing fully well that a mere undertaking in writing by an individual cannot substitute for authenticity in a verifiable manner, the defence minister accepted a line fed to him by his staff to force Gen V.K. Singh to retire a year ahead of his rightful date. By this action, he has in one stroke undermined the very foundation of trust between his ministry and the armed forces.
Lt Col B.K. Nautiyal (retd), on e-mail
This dilly-dallying could lead to a national calamity, like the ignominious defeat at the hands of the Chinese in 1962.
Lt Col S.P. Karir (retd), on e-mail
At least the man spoke out. We should thank Gen V.K. Singh.
Siddharth Shankar Mishra, Sambalpur, Orissa
A main reason why India is ‘coup-proof’ is the sheer combined size of the state and reserve police forces, headed by ips officers loyal to the political establishment, for right as well as wrong reasons.
Mike Desai, Delhi
So many stories in your magazine on the army imbroglio, but will someone tell us the real cost of the trucks in question and the price at which the army bought them or was asked to buy them?
Kiran Voleti, Chennai
Our enemies must be laughing at the war between the army and the government.
Prof H.S. Dimple, Jagraon
The general has compromised integrity and honour to reach the top and now cries foul when there’s no space to crawl further.
Gilbert D’Souza, Bangalore
It’s unusual to expect the army to be clean when most public services in the country are corrupt. After all, like cancer, corruption metastasises to all organs of the country. The entire body needs to be subjected to chemotherapy.
Arun Kumar, London
Even today, if one considers the perks of army life—free housing and rations, subsidised canteen and travel facilities, long leave—it amounts to much more than most civilian jobs of a similar level. Perhaps corruption in the army is a reflection of what’s true of society in general—an urge to strike it rich.
Navin Malhotra, New Delhi
It’s humiliating for the nation that the army chief is joining the long list of those who are seen as disgraced.
K. Chidanand Kumar, Bangalore
The leaked letter of the army chief to the PM was made public by the media at a great cost to national security. The media should have exercised restraint, for national security stands far higher than circulation figures.
Mahesh Kumar, New Delhi
Your insinuations that A.K. Antony and V.K. Singh have compromised national security with their media games is disgraceful (Disgrace, Apr 9).
'One too honest to back off, the other honest to a fault.' If they are Gen V K Singh and A K Antony respectively then it is like comparing cheese with chalk. If you need another proof for Antony's honesty (or fraud, depends on how you look at it!) then look at the self financing professional colleges scenario in Kerala. He promised the people that 50 pc of the SFC seats will be available as govt seats (as per the criteria for govt colleges) and he muddled things up so badly that even after 10 years we have not been able to redeem his promise. And have you noticed that in this country the petty criminals get caught and punished, the professional criminals are recognised and used and the worst of them are feared and/or worshipped?
BIG MONEY IS BEHIND DEFENCE DEALS - MOSTLY 'NATIONAL SECRETS'.
So we, the 'commoner', may never know who made how much and how - ever. We can only ask that these deals are made transparent. But are we ever listened to?
Army war machine: Night-blind, old and unfit
Last month, GMeanwhile on Times Now channel the full story of Tatragate is being revealed just now. General after General have been opposing purchase of Tatra on single Tender basis .
But General Deepak Kapoor favored Tatra only.eneral V K Singh had written in to the defence minister in far greater detail.
In January 2010, then army chief, General Deepak Kapoor, had announced that 80 per cent of his tanks were night blind, which in other words admits that they were unfit for war. And when the use of force was considered after the 26/11 Mumbai terror strikes, all three service chiefs sent to the defence minister a laundry list of equipment deficiencies. '
Thanks to the General for raking up the date of birth issue. It has snowballed into exposing India's unpreparedness for long war, unholy nexus between politicians-bureaucrats-military generals turned middlemen and above all incompetence of Saints Manmohan Singh and Antony in Statecraft. If anybody is to step down it is PM for sleeping on the wheel for eight years.
The saga goes back to the days of 1996 ,when Chidambaram was made the Finance Minister in the united front govt, he stopped all capital expenditure for armed forces.............this resulted in fiasco of 2002 Jan ....post attack on parliament ...when India could only fume and do nothing, as there was hardly any ammunition available even for obsolete weapons .....the same situation prevails now ......the arms procurement system is not only corrupt but clueless ....many of the so called staff requirements originate with preferred company specifications as the requirement ...and then the saga begins, the competitor cries foul and wants specs to be tailor made for him.............I feel MOD must not interfere at all and give the entire powers to Service headquarters except for financial transaction ......at least that way the entire process will have single ownership. I will refrain from specifics, but the rot is all around. Armed forces are no more institutions but are like any other jobs where people aspire to grow in rank and manoeuvre to their advantage………..the system of armed force institutions larger than individual is all hogwash and had a quiet burial long long Ago.
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