Gen. VK Singh is a victim of high-handedness
General VK Singh is a victim of the high-handedness on the part of civilian bureaucracy that treats soldiers with disdain. A section of top brass in the Army – serving and retired – joined the bandwagon to corner the Chief to serve their respective interests that are not entirely honourable. The General’s no-nonsense approach towards corruption, particularly in the purchase of defence equipment, and his moves to bring to book elements perceived to be involved in shady land deals and Adarsh Housing Society irked many in the Army and the Defence Ministry.
Even his worst critics would concede that General Singh is absolutely clean. They couldn’t fault him on that score. So they manufactured the controversy over his date of birth disregarding the settled issue that matriculation certificate or a birth certificate issued by a municipal authority is the authentic document to prove a person’s age. Unfortunately, the General fell in the trap and made it an issue of his honour and dignity. He was criticised by several well-meaning quarters for dragging his Government to the Court on the issue. His honour and dignity would have been vindicated had he put in his papers after the Government rejected his statutory petition. He didn’t follow buy peace and doggedly persisted with his stand.
In an interview to the Editor of a national daily, the General said “Adarsh lobby” and some “equipment lobbyists” were behind his age controversy. The editor has now disclosed that midway through the longish tape-recorded interview he dropped the bombshell about the bribe attempt for clearing the purchase of “over-priced” trucks that had no proper facility for maintenance and services. The General later said he was shocked by the brazen offer and asked the man – a retired General – out of his office. He also mentioned that he reported the shocking offer to the Defence Minister AK Antony. Although, a CBI enquiry was ordered after the charge became public, it doesn’t explain away inaction by the General and the Raksha Mantry against the man who had the audacity to offer a bribe to the Army Chief. That neither of them took timely action against the bribe giver is a matter of grave concern.
In an obvious bid to divert attention from the core issue, General Singh’s detractors in the establishment questioned his assertion that the Tantra trucks were “substandard”. DRDO Chief and scientific adviser to the Defence Minister issued a statement claiming the trucks in question were “outstanding”. Chairman of the Bharat Earth Movers Ltd (BEML)—the PSU that had supplied the trucks to the Army—also defended the quality of trucks by saying that there was not a single complaint from the Army against these trucks. The General has a different take on the issue. There are reports in the media that the trucks “miserably failed” in super high altitude areas in northern Sikkim. Be what it may. It is not for the first time that this tactics was employed to divert attention from the core issue namely money playing part in defence deals. Bofors guns, we were told, were of high quality and had served the country extremely well during the Kargil war. It was no one’s case that Bofors guns were defective. The charge was that middlemen were involved in the deal and commission was paid and accepted by the high and the mighty. National outrage against corruption in high places lost the Congress its Government in the next elections. The issue at hand is not whether the trucks were “sub standard” or not. The issue is whether or not the trucks were “over-priced” and whether the BEML flouted rules and regulations in procuring the trucks and that were sold to the Army at a price much higher than their price in the international market. CBI is already investigating the matter and hopefully the nation would soon know the identity of those who were the beneficiaries in this shady deal.
TV channels and newspapers without much home work painted the accuser as the accused. Questions were raised as to why the Army Chief had not handed over the person who offered him a bribe to the police and why he didn’t blacklist the company. They didn’t bother to inform the people that the company concerned was a public sector undertaking and the General couldn’t have banned it. Of course, the Chief can be faulted for not calling in the police to get the man arrested and reportedly telling the Minister that he was not interested in pursuing the matter any further. More intriguing is Antony’s failure to take cognizance of the attempt to bribe the Chief in latter’s office. And if he thought the General was wrong, why did he not take action against him for glossing over such a serious matter. It has now come to light that Antony was not ignorant about the irregularities in the purchase of trucks. His cabinet colleague Ghulam Nabi Azad had long ago written to the Defence Minister about the shady deal. Raksha Mantri’s indefensible defence has no leg to stand on. Does honesty means glossing over the misconduct of others?
The leakage of General’s letter to the Prime Minister about the Army’s depleting fighting capabilities is a matter of deep national concern as it has the potential to compromise our national security. The Government and the General expressed their anguish over the leak and described it as “high treason”. Is it fair to blame the Chief for the leak as sections of media are doing? The leak not only hurt the prestige of the Government but also embarrassed the General to no end. In whose interest it was to leak the confidential communication between the Army Chief and the head of the Government? Presumably beneficiaries of the leak are the General’s detractors, whosoever they are. An enquiry by the IB is on. Let the guilty be handed down exemplary punishment. Again, the General has been unfairly targeted for writing the leaked letter to the Prime Minister instead of sending it through proper channel. Little did the critics know that the Service Chiefs routinely write such letters to the head of the Government and that the Army Chief had earlier written a similar letter to the Raksha Mantri. However, the distressing public discourse did wake up the Minister to call a high level meeting to clear certain procurement planning documents of the armed forces. A series of reforms are also said to be in the pipeline. The Minister is believed to have told his ministry to give more financial powers to the Service Chiefs for speedier acquisition of equipment and platforms. The country didn’t deserve the disgraceful and avoidable spat between the Government and the Chief. Antony is perceived to be honest, so is Dr. Manmohan Singh. But their failure to rein in and discipline the bureaucracy and the General before they indulged in an open war is a telling comment on their administrative skills and quality of political leadership.
It is highly questionable for the leaders of caste-driven regional parties to blame the Chief for compromising the nation’s security and demanding his immediate sack. Their attacks on the General smack of caste considerations. Equally unacceptable is former security adviser Brajesh Mishtra’s comment that the General had gone berserk and must be asked to proceed on leave. One expects him to be more circumspect while commenting on the conduct of a highly decorated officer occupying the top position in the Army. Such uncalled for comments tend to demoralize the force. True, there comes a time when the only honourable option available to a person is to resign in the face of perceived injustice or to expose motivated attempts to prevent one from performing his/her duty. The General didn’t choose that path presumably because he thought it was his duty to continue with his unfinished task of cleansing the system. Several decades ago, a similar situation was faced by General K S Thimmayya who had grave and legitimate differences with the controversial Defence Minister Krishna Menon. He resigned in protest but withdrew his resignation on the advice of the Prime Minister J.L. Nehru. However, Nehru backed his personal friend in Parliament and criticized the iconic General by saying he couldn’t congratulate him. Many in the army then thought Thimmayya should resign to vindicate his stand and honour. But Thimmayya swallowed the insult may be in what he thought was national interest. History, alas, proved him wrong. Had he put in his papers after Nehru’s speech in Parliament, may be the country wouldn’t have to face the disgraceful defeat in the China’s border war in 1962 for which both Menon and Nehru were responsible.