By Col. R. Hariharan
The controversy surrounding the outgoing Army Chief General V. K. Singh’s revelations in the last two months provided an excellent opportunity for the Indian Express Editor’s cleverly constructed “scoop” hinting at the panic created in New Delhi when two military units – a mechanized column and a parachute battalion – moved towards the capital on January 16. Its innuendoes at the establishment’s suspicion about the loyalty of the army drew nation-wide attention. It is significant that a factual news story on lessons army learnt from the same military movement published a month earlier in a news website failed to get the same attention.
Despite their mischief potential the ‘troop movement’ story and the ‘analytical’ clones that followed have done the nation a favour. They brought into limelight three skeletons locked up in our national security cupboards and wished away for quite some time. They partially demystified the complex construct of the three ‘skeletons’ – well-entrenched corruption in defence procurement, aberrations of obsolete structures in the defence ministry and services headquarters, and pervasive ignorance on national security issues at all levels of society.
The trial by media that followed the Indian Express story has revealed there was nervousness at least at some level in the government when the Army Chief’s age controversy reached the judgement day in the Supreme Court. This showed lack of trust at least among some bureaucrats and politicians in the averment of both defence minister and the Army Chief that their relations were cordial. Even the “conspiracy theories” thereafter had takers as islands of distrust continue to exist at the functional levels in the corridors of South Block both among the uniformed and the civilian kind.
This cannot be dismissed as the karma of Army Chief General V. K. Singh’s birth on two different dates catching up with him. Governments and armed forces have different styles and structures of functioning and leadership. This increases the chances of friction in their interactions in most of the countries. However, this has been exacerbated because of Indian army’s colonial origin. Overnight it became the army of independent India without any change other than shedding the few British officers from its ranks. This change of a colonial instrument into a national vanguard of defence brought in its wake uneasiness among civilians, in not only in dealing with armed forces, but also in handling matters military as well. And the armed forces became the holy cows to be revered from the distance and left to their own pastures.
Is it any surprise the Chief of Army Staff, who succeeded the Commander-in-Chief who was number two in protocol in the colonial days, was progressively downgraded to be equated now with the chairman of the union public service commission? Hidebound bureaucracy sticks to this pecking order and any move off this order raises heckles of suspicion. As a result there is a lack of healthy interaction between service chiefs and political leadership.
National leadership of newly independent India spared little time to develop a strategic vision except to ensure the armed forces respected civilian authority. They called upon the armed forces only in times of war, not even on the eve of it. However, it is to Prime Minister Nehru’s credit that he directly met the army chief one-to-one. Nehru had world view on issues and it helped to strike an equation with military chiefs.
Over a period of time, when leaders of lesser stature took over power, they had little time or interest in matters military. The bureaucracy provided the interface between the armed forces and the prime minister and defence minister. Unless we remove these blocks and have an integrated defence ministry structure, where both civil and military bureaucracy work together as equals, the situation is unlikely to improve.
Another aspect that needs attention in this whole affair is the long term damage done to the cordial relationship existing between the government and armed forces. Though the prime minister and defence minister strongly endorsed their faith in the army, it lacked profundity to counter the adverse impact of the story. In a country where civilian-military leadership confrontations are rare, it will join a small collection of such aberrations in the past like those of General Thimmayya and Admiral Bhagavat.
This is the direct outcome of the public image of armed forces frozen in the early days of independence where armed forces as instruments of colonial government were seen and not heard. The current reality is to accept differences that do come up between the leaders of government and armed forces in their perception of national security issues. Ultimately it is for national leadership to lay down policy and for the armed forces to execute them. For this to be operationally effective, the response of both the national leadership and armed forces to each others’ concerns should be real time.
And there is a need to demystify military matters by publishing periodic white papers to keep the public informed. This can only happen when we give up our national penchant to treat defence matters as holy cows and be accountable to the huge expenditure the tax payer is incurring towards national defence. Then only our law makers will focus on core issues rather than the peripheral or sensational.
Political parties need to create defence specialists in their midst to make healthy contribution to national security policy making. Of course, they do have leaders with adequate knowledge on security issues; but unfortunately, it would appear their services are not used to upgrade the quality of parliamentary debates on defence issues. The shadow cabinet system followed by the British opposition can provide useful pointers on this aspect.
There is no point in blaming the media for this serial controversy; the stark truth is now their values are driven by monetary concerns than commitment to ideals. The media story gained prominence because the controversy provided a fertile ground in the climate of trust deficit between the public and the government. This is probably much more than what exists within the South Block or between the public and armed forces. It is tragic because this time it has created fissures in civil-military relations, and in times of national security crisis the damage could be appalling. This is the downside of the the ‘scoop’ and the whole affair surrounding the story that started with two different dates of birth for the same Army Chief. It can happen only in India.
(Col R Hariharan, a retired Military Intelligence specialist on South Asia, is associated with the Chennai Centre for China Studies and the South Asia Analysis Group. E-Mail: [email protected])