The Prime Minister should have stepped in during the entirely avoidable high-level bickering between the military and the government.

Some days ago I asked a friend to give me his assessment of Manmohan Singh's government. He summed it up in less than 20 words. “The UPA-II is in the ICU. The pharmacy is locked and the doctor has run away.”

The spat between the Defence Minister and the Army Chief was being played out in the media while the Heads of State of Brazil, China, Russia and South Africa were in Delhi. The BRICS summit was all but drowned in the ocean of words on TV and in the print media. They must all have returned with misgivings about the lack of governance and an absence of cohesion at the highest levels in India. The 100 foreign missions in Delhi would be working overtime to report to their governments the unseemly washing of dirty linen in public. The washermen are distinguished and powerful individuals. The Army Chief carries his China shop with him. The Defence Minister uses one word where two are necessary. The Prime Minister, it seems, believes that no action is also action. He has been the captain of the UPA for eight years. It is his duty to enforce discipline.

Away from public gaze

Ever since he became Army Chief, the General has shown no verbal restraint. This is unprecedented. On the very first occasion the Prime Minister should have sent for him and cautioned him not to cross the Lakshman Rekha. I have little doubt that the straight talking general would have fallen in line. Institutions are run by human beings. It is equally true that these can also be destroyed by these very individuals. This is the first time since Independence that such an unfortunate situation has been created.

Our Armed Forces are second to none in valour. They serve, they obey, they give their lives to protect the security and territorial integrity of Bharat Mata. It gives one no pleasure to say that they are being ill-served by their masters. Grave matters are being debated and discussed on TV screens. This should never have been allowed to happen.

Our system has instrumentalities where such issues can be discussed in camera, away from public gaze. The Cabinet Committee on Security is presided over by the head of government. The other members are the Ministers of Defence, Finance, Home and External Affairs. From personal experience I know that the security committee meets frequently. When necessary, the Army, the Air Force and the Navy Chiefs are asked to attend. They have their say. They receive their instructions and carry them out. These discussions deal with the most sensitive security concerns. The committee has more pressing topics to deliberate on than the age of a particular individual.

The General's age problem should have been sorted out at the departmental level and promptly. Twice born the Army Chief may be but he should not resort to sustained logorrhoea. What a terrible example to set. Over a million officers and soldiers look up to their chief. At this time they must be asking themselves: “Is this really happening. Do we deserve this?” His age is not a national issue. The security of India is. The age farce was taken to the Supreme Court. Another example of gross disregard for the well established norms and tradition. He was emboldened because he was not restrained. At this stage the Prime Minister should have put his foot down. The chain of command is clear. The Defence Minister decides, the chief obeys. It's that clear cut. There are no grey areas. The chief should have gone to a military court of inquiry instead of the CBI.

Much has been said and written about vehicles — the Tatra from the Czech Republic. These are exiguous details. What is not trivial is the conduct of the chief after he was allegedly offered a bribe. The figure is of no consequence. It could be one crore or 14. A bribe is a bribe. The Defence Minister should not have fumbled but acted and taken drastic action against the culprit.

The Chief of Army cannot be faulted for bringing to the notice of the Prime Minister the state of our army and air force. These are ill-equipped and probably not battle worthy. His top secret letter became public property. Who leaked it and why? This is not a snakes and ladders game. We are talking about the security of India. Not a children's game. Another worrying aspect of this episode is that of serving officers giving chits of good conduct to the chief. It reminds me of junior ministers saying in public that the Prime Minister is doing a good job. If the “Air Defence” is 97 per cent non-functional, when did the chief come to know of it? Did he bring this shortfall to the notice of the Defence Minister? If so, what was his response? If not, then why not? The country is entitled to know.

On leading and inspiring

Our Defence Minister, Saint Antony, is a good and honest man. He is, alas, in the wrong job. The Defence Minister should lead, guide, encourage and inspire. Being the benign and decent man he is, he will agree that he does not do so. His performance as Defence Minister is causing serious concern.

The Supreme Court showed the mirror to the General. That is when he should have put in his papers. That would have been honourable. He keeps repeating that his honour and integrity are at stake. As far as one can gather, not one person has questioned his integrity or his honour. His valour is praiseworthy. What is in question is his judgment. Why did he get “too startled” when the bribe was offered? Brave men and brave generals are expected not to lose their cool at any time.

This entirely avoidable high-level bickering must inevitably be discussed in every regimental mess. This is not a happy situation.

How is this unholy mess to be cleaned up? Not via slow motion. Neither side has come out with glory. This directionless drift must stop. Enough damage has been inflicted on the morale of the defence forces.

Our Pakistani friends must be running to their cantonments in glee. Even our friends around the world must be worrying at this sorry state of affairs.

During the Korean war, 1950-1953, President Harry S. Truman dismissed the five-star General Douglas MacArthur for disregarding his instructions to not cross the Yalu river. MacArthur was perhaps the greatest American general of the 20th century. Truman did not let him flout his authority and get away with his high-handedness

The Prime Minister has three options. Immediate damage control. Ask the Chief of the Army Staff not to go to the media. And request the Defence Minister to be more alert and assertive.

(The author was External Affairs Minister from 2004 to 2005.)

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