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Is the worst over in the Army-government tug of war?

April 16, 2012 18:56 IST
The tragedy -- and paradox -- of the present situation is that the spat has occurred between two figures known for their integrity -- AK Antony and Gen VK Singh -- who should have walked in step in the larger national interest, says Neerja Chowdhury

The AK Antony-Gen VK Singh spat, which has embarrassed the government no end, seems to be de-escalating. But the question that remains hanging out there is the extent to which the  PIL filed in the court by former Navy chief Admiral LN Ramdas and former Chief Election Commissioner N Gopalaswami, questioning the appointment of VK Singh's successor Gen Bikram Singh, will keep the pot boiling. 

The report in the Indian Express on April 4 -- about the movement of two units of the Army to Delhi without notifying the government, which had supposedly "spooked" the government -- had kicked up dust but, ironically, also managed to rein in both the defence minister and the chief of army staff.

Forget for a moment the debate around who leaked the story, or for that matter the leaks that have taken place from within the system of late. Or the accuracy of the information it contained. Or the rightness of using it. Or of "over-interpreting" it. There is now a gag order imposed by the Lucknow bench of the Allahabad high court prohibiting stories about movement of armed forces, which has been endorsed by an advisory of the information and broadcasting ministry. 

There are two upshots to the recent exposes. One affects the defence minister and the other the Army chief.

If there was any chance of AK Antony being considered for a "bigger" role – President? Or prime minister in the eventuality of Dr Manmohan Singh stepping down for whatever reason, which does not look likely -- that may now become much more difficult.

Antony has been known for his clean image, has had the confidence of Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi, and from time to time it has been speculated whether Sonia Gandhi would install him in the top gaddi if push came to shove. This might have been viewed as a possibility, since Dr Manmohan Singh had increasingly come in for criticism in recent times,  and Rahul Gandhi was not ready to take over the reins of power, particularly after the Uttar Pradesh elections.

However, the recent exposes have raised questions about Antony's ability to manage things. The Army chief is after all an institution and not just an individual, and Antony had allowed the conflict over his age to escalate into a major issue between the Army and the ministry.

Questions have also been raised about why he failed to take action on the complaint of Gen VK Singh in September 2010 that the latter had been offered a bribe of Rs 14 crores by a retired general for sanctioning substandard  trucks. It was only when the general disclosed this in an interview, that Antony ordered a Central Bureau of Investigation probe. The buzz going around was that while Antony was a "saintly" man, he was a "weak" leader.

Of course, to be fair to Antony, this is the easiest way to damn an honest man. Negotiating through a corrupt system is no easy task today for politicians who want to remain upright, and the first charge they invite is of sluggishness or immobilisation in decision-making. They tend to tread carefully and do not want to get tripped. This is as true of Antony as it is of Maharashtra Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan.   

It also required courage of a kind to oppose the sacking of General VK Singh in January.  When the Army chief went to the Supreme Court over his age issue, there were several senior ministers who were in favour of  showing the general the door for defiance of civilian authority, and they had pointed out that this could not be brooked in a democratic country like India.

Given the trouble the defence minister was having with the general, sacking him would have been easy. But Antony was mindful of the reaction it could trigger off inside the Army, widening the gap between the armed forces and civil authority if the government adopted such a course. For Gen VK Singh does command support and following in the Army and is viewed as being a "more than honest" chief.

Rightly or wrongly, the defence minister -- and the PM -- opted for defusing the situation rather than giving the general the sack.

The recent expose has also had the effect of reining in the Army chief. He had openly taken on the government – which was unprecedented -- to vindicate his honour over his age. At one stage, after he had disclosed that he was offered a bribe and after the leak of his March 12 letter to the prime minister about the lack of defence preparedness, he was beginning to be seen more as a "whistleblower" than a "troublemaker".

There are very few takers for the "coup" theory. For unlike the armies in some of the  neighbouring countries, the Indian Army is decentralised in its command operations, and a couple of generals -- and a few hundred soldiers -- cannot carry out a coup. But there are some who wonder whether the limited objective of the movement of the two units, was to send a message to the defence ministry, with which the Army chief had a war going, that the Army stood with him.

There was speculation that the Army chief had much more ammunition up his sleeve about corruption, which he would come out in dribbles, to further embarrass the government before his retirement on May 31. The recent expose has made this much more difficult. For, niggling questions remain about what the general was about and why he cocked a snook at the government so blatantly. The general's detractors -- and politicians like Lalu Yadav -- see him positioning himself for a post retirement, possibly political, role.    

That the civilian authority should get concerned with the movement of two units of the Army -- though it has been rubbished all around by the Army and the government alike -- shows they were worried about what the Army chief might get up to.   

This mother of all spats has brought to the fore the factional war inside the government, the armed forces and between arms lobbies. Worse, it has brought the Army chief in conflict with the government, something that cannot be encouraged, no matter what the provocation.

Given his uprightness, there would be many -- and arms lobbies are powerful entities with international backing -- who would like Antony to walk into the sunset. And who would like Gen Singh to retire as quickly as possible.

The tragedy -- and paradox -- of the present situation is that the spat has occurred between two figures known for their integrity -- AK Antony and Gen VK Singh -- who should have walked in step in the larger national interest.
Neerja Chowdhury in New Delhi