The Army chief has been accused of crossing the Lakshman Rekha. But those attacking him have crossed the line too.

It has been a free-for-all on television and print media this past week with analysts obsessively dissecting the conduct of Army Chief V.K. Singh. Some of the commentators might have had access to the “devious” mind of the “rogue” chief, judging by the authoritative information coming the way of news consumers.

They knew, for instance, that the chief deliberately timed his interview with The Hindu – where he accused a retired Army officer of approaching him with a bribe offer of Rs.14 crore — to coincide with the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) summit in Delhi. But just in case this did not suffice, the trigger-happy general was also going to be ready with further ammunition: indeed, who else but the rampaging chief could leak a letter he wrote to the Prime Minister mid-March, lamenting the state of unpreparedness of the Army? Together, the bribery charge and the leaked letter containing the country's top defence secrets would shame India before the BRICS delegation: When it came to fighting wars, the “superpower” was super powerless!

The bombshell

As the person who did the “explosive” bribery charge interview, I ought to know something about its timing, and how the bribery revelation came about. I met the General at his official residence in Delhi for an hour-long taped interview a few days before its eventual publication on March 26. This time was required to fill in some gaps in information as well as to transcribe the long, meandering content of the conversation. It wasn't as if the chief was bursting with unspilled secrets. The interview, I assumed, was about the age controversy and the state of the army, and so it was for the large part. The general insisted the age controversy was manufactured — because the school leaving certificate was the only authentic document to prove date of birth, a fact, he pointed out, had been upheld in several Supreme Court judgments. Half way into the questioning, when he was specifically asked who was behind the controversy, he mentioned “the Adarsh lobby and some equipment lobbyists.” Then suddenly he dropped the bombshell about the bribe attempt. I absorbed the information trying not to show too much excitement, and quizzed him on the details. He said it was for clearing the purchase of a tranche of overpriced trucks that had no proper facility for “maintenance and service.” Also that he was so enraged by the brazenness of it all that he took it up with Union Defence Minister A.K. Antony. But Gen. Singh simply wouldn't part with more information, nor explain what action he or the Minister had taken. “Leave it,” he said.

Journalists know when they have a scoop and they also know how far to push their source. I do not know if the General knowingly concealed the scoop in a maze of information, I do not know if his intention all along was only to disclose the bribe attempt, but at that point, my overwhelming concern was that he shouldn't retract. Significantly, the “always warring” General never once blamed the state of affairs on the Manmohan Singh government or on Mr. Antony whom he appeared genuinely fond of. The chief had a standard reply to each of my questions on political graft, and on the people in government who might have been party to the corruption he was so anguished about: “I'm concerned with and will talk about only my organisation.”

I emerged out of Gen.Singh's home with the BRICS summit, still many days away, hardly in my consciousness. The bribe news hit TV channels and Parliament like an avalanche. Commentators and politicians were scandalised that a bribe offer had been made to the Army Chief. But as the day wore on, the accuser became the accused, and questions began to be raised about why the chief had not handed over the bribe-giver to the police and why he had not blacklisted the company that supplied the trucks. Valid questions, but by now a few details had emerged. The company was a public sector undertaking. Could the Army Chief have blacklisted it? Serving officers in the Army were also appalled at the assumption that the chief could have walked to a police station and filed an FIR against an officer who was now a civilian. “In the Army you report any such thing to the superior which the chief did by going to Mr. Antony.” The Defence Minister confirmed that the general had gone to him with the bribery complaint, adding though that he had advised him to act on it which he did not. This raised another question. Why did Gen. Singh not act on Mr. Antony's advice? But equally, why did Mr. Antony not pursue the complaint, and more importantly, why did he not sack the chief for glossing over such a serious matter? (It turned out later that he had received complaints about the trucks from Ghulam Nabi Azad.)

Intemperate reactions

By this time, the leaked letter had exploded, causing further mayhem. Mulayam Singh and Lalu Prasad, forming an undisguised caste grouping, hit out Gen. Singh, who was commissioned into the 2nd Battalion of the Rajput Regiment. “Sack him, sack him,” they chorused even as the Congress fielded spokespersons who despaired at the lunacy of the “runaway” chief. For god's sake, the man had leaked a classified letter containing India's defence shortcomings! The articulate Sushma Swaraj did not accuse the chief of leaking the letter but she was appalled that he had written to the Prime Minister instead of having a private chat with the Raksha Mantri: “There is always the danger that a letter will be leaked,” she said.

The noise grew into a cacophony as many voices pitched in. In this bazaar of instant verdicts, anyone could say anything and it would become breaking news. Army chief writing to the Prime Minister is Standard Operating Procedure in the Army. Similar communications take place between the chiefs of Air Staff and Naval Staff and the Prime Minister. The letters, termed by the forces as routine, are usually written at six-monthly intervals and give an account of shortcomings in order that the executive is kept fully informed on India's defence preparedness. To an outsider, these letters may appear alarmist but this is part of the drill in the services. In fact, this kind of communication happens down the line. A colonel in charge of equipment in the mechanised infantry would do similar stock-taking with respect to wastage and reserve of ammunition in communications to his immediate superior. Army commanders submit six-monthly appraisals of their respective commands to the chief and these are discussed “frankly and freely” at conferences attended by the Defence Minister and the Prime Minister.

Gen Singh's letter to the Prime Minister was similar to a letter he had written earlier to Mr. Antony which was scooped by a newspaper. Nonetheless, the “informed” discussions quietened down only after the General, away in Jammu and Kashmir, issued a statement asking for the leak to be treated as “high treason.” But there was still a lurking suspicion that he would do something rash and unpredictable, possibly disparage the Defence Minister at the ex-servicemen's rally scheduled for March 31. As it turned out, the general lavished praise on Mr. Antony, saying he had been more than receptive to his suggestions on solving the problems of armymen.

There is no doubt that Gen. V.K. Singh is one of a kind — any army chief who drags the government to court would be. His refusal to resign in the face of the government's intransigence is painful and was entirely avoidable. The General is a highly decorated officer, and has been something of a hero to his men. Some of his arguments on the date issue are sound, and yet he has done himself and the organisation – which goes to war so we can sleep in peace – he heads unspeakable harm by taking defiant positions. The General should have delivered a grand speech and made a graceful exit. That would have made the government appear vindictive and mean by comparison.

However, the unpopular positions he took on his date of birth ought not to become justification for heaping scorn and ridicule on a man who, even his critics admit, is squeaky clean. There is something about the general which is worth noting. He attacks from the front: He went to court, he gave an on-the-record interview. He is unlikely to have leaked the letter. He did not gain by leaking the letter.

Gen. Singh and Mr. Antony are both perceived to be incorruptible. Together they had an opportunity to cleanse the Army. History will record that this was a wasted opportunity.

vidyasu@thehindu.co.in

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