Will the government grin and bear it until Gen. V.K. Singh retires or ask him to go on forced leave?
Hours after the contents of a letter written by General V.K. Singh to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on the lack of defence preparedness appeared in a national daily on Wednesday, adding a new dimension to the ongoing controversy sparked by an explosive interview the Army Chief gave this newspaper, Defence Minister A.K. Antony assured Parliament that the government was committed to ensuring the safety and security of the nation.
And even as some parties denounced the Army Chief, demanding his dismissal and an inquiry into who had leaked the letter, the government went into damage-control mode: the Prime Minister — who returned late Tuesday night from South Korea — went into a huddle with Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee, Home Minister P. Chidambaram and Mr. Antony to discuss the government's limited options.
The government can grin and bear it until the General demits office at May-end. Or it can ask him to go on forced leave and risk damaging the office of Army Chief.
The letter may have painted a grim picture but, sources say, it is the practice for service chiefs to write to the Prime Minister, shortly before they retire, on the state of the fighting arm they head. This letter is also similar to the one Gen. Singh wrote to Mr. Antony last month. That too appeared in a newspaper and contains much of what the Army had shared with the Defence Ministry and the National Security Council last year.
Those close to the General — who was in Kashmir on Wednesday — deny that the letter was leaked from his office, stressing he had nothing to gain by its contents being made public. The March 12 letter says India's security may be at risk as tanks are running out of ammunition; air defence is becoming obsolete; and the infantry lacks critical weapons. A Congress functionary even told The Hindu that it was virtually impossible that the Army Chief would have leaked a confidential letter, as it was an offence that would attract court martial.
Through the day, it became clear that the government did not wish to act in haste. So while within the Congress, the mood was turning against the General — with Union Minister for Overseas Affairs Vayalar Ravi even calling him a “frustrated man” because he could not get an extension — Mr. Antony assured the Rajya Sabha that “the government is determined to do all that is necessary to ensure the safety and security of the nation,” adding it was committed to getting the best equipment for the armed forces and speeding up the modernisation process. By late afternoon, the government decided it needed to address the issues raised in the General's letter again. So it fielded its articulate Minister of State for Defence Pallam Raju. He told journalists that though in the last three years the entire capital budget had been utilised, there were “gaps in capabilities which we are trying to bridge as quickly as possible.” At the Congress' official briefing, the tone was muted. Party spokesperson Rashid Alvi said defence was a “sensitive” issue and should be not become the subject of loose talk. And while the leaking of the letter raised many questions, nothing should be said or done that would weaken India as a nation, he said.
Meanwhile, it became clear that till such time as it is known who leaked the letter, the Army Chief will remain in the dock. The Samajwadi Party, the Janata Dal (United) and the Rashtriya Janata Dal vociferously demanded that he be sacked. The Bharatiya Janata Party distanced itself from this demand, but it was no longer as sympathetic to the Army Chief; it appeared to be gradually veering round to the view that he had crossed the Lakshman Rekha. “Why did the Army Chief not meet the Prime Minister and personally brief him,” asked Leader of the Opposition in the Lok Sabha Sushma Swaraj. “The decision to write a letter is always fraught with the possibility, even if one per cent, that it may be leaked at some point in time… When the common man reads that the defence forces have no ammunition and cannot defend the country he finds it scary.” The only concession she was willing to give him was that perhaps his decision to write such a letter was a reflection of the complete breakdown of communication between the Army Chief and the government. But despite the growing unease over Gen. Singh's public statements, the BJP is not ready to seek any action against him. However, it has given notice for suspension of question hour in the Lok Sabha to discuss the subject; that did not happen on Wednesday as the House was plunged into turmoil on the Telangana issue.