Former army chief General V.K. Singh’s life story right now can be divided into two parts—before and after retirement. If before the general was a soldier’s leader taking on the system, post-retirement he’s seen as a maverick on the warpath. For while most chiefs hang up their boots after retirement, maybe join a defence/corporate firm or think-tank, Gen V.K Singh has refused to sound the retreat. He’s been lending his weight to mass movements, making anti-establishment speeches and, even testing the political waters.
Men in the olive uniform believe that even after an officer retires, he carries a bit of the army with him. This belief is especially true in the case of retired army chiefs who are seen as carriers of the tradition. So the former general’s dabbling in various ‘causes’ is seen as a clear break from tradition. The general, of course, has his sympathisers, but there are now many who also question his conduct. First and foremost is the question: does it behove a former chief to invite criticism on a force which he served for 42 years? What does it say of a general who after years of service to the nation turns a trenchant critic of the system he was part of? Is Gen Singh at risk of losing the respect of his peers and juniors? Should he not be thankful the government has given him such a long rope? Will he only be remembered as the general who took on the establishment to get his birth date changed to get an extra year in office?
Former army chief General Shankar Roychowdhury told a TV channel recently that a chief, after he retires, should be very careful about what profession and activities he takes up. For if you enter politics, you don’t quite know which way you will be thrown.
Now it’s only fair to say Gen V.K. Singh has turned out to be somewhat of a maverick in the last couple of years. Just months after handing over charge to Gen Bikram Singh, he shared the stage with Anna Hazare and the likes of Baba Ramdev on the anti-corruption front. His calendar of activism has been full thereafter: one day at the protests over the nuclear plant in Gorakhpur; ano-ther day at the gherao of Parliament called by cane growers; and then one day, sharing the dais with ex-Haryana CM Om Prakash Chautala and Punjab CM Parkash Badal (neither is necessarily a great exemplar of probity). Now there is even an FIR against him for “inciting a mob and provoking crowds” at Jantar Mantar where he joined the protests over the Delhi gangrape.
The drama at the general’s official residence on Mandir Marg in Delhi, where his family detained a serving major alleging that he was trying to plant a bug in the house, is only the latest in his bag of ‘cry wolf’ controversies. As critics saw it, what seemed at first to be some sort of a genuine security scare moved swiftly in the public eye to a publicity event. The general, to be sure, did say: “I do not blame the officer or the organisation for which I worked for 42 years. I blame those who directed them to do that”. But the entire business of detaining the major in the lawn and calling the media to “interrogate” him raised more questions about the farce being enacted on screen, instead of security issues. In reality, it is the general who needs to answer why the telephone exchange—a secured communications network manned by 2-3 personnel from the Signals Corps—was not removed after the lapse of the mandatory 90-day period.
As per protocol, outgoing chiefs are allowed to avail facilities like secured communication lines, accommodation and Z-plus security for a maximum of three months. In Gen Singh’s case, the MoD granted him permission to retain his official residence for a year, after he had formally put in a request for it.
The peer review is not very flattering. Lt Gen Raj Kadiyan, ex-army deputy chief, says “although it’s a very minor incident, it hurt the army’s image. That said, Gen V.K. Singh’s personal and public image has also taken a beating”. Maj Gen (retd) Ashok Mehta, in fact, says “he should be thankful the government has given him such a long rope while taking advantage of the office. I am sorry to say this, but Gen V.K. Singh demerits the prestigious office of the army chief.”
Just days prior to the ‘bugging’ incident, the government had withdrawn his security cover as per procedure. He promptly blamed this on the establishment, that too for ‘highlighting’ the withdrawal. There is a strange persistence to the way the name V.K. Singh has been cropping up in news columns.