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Home > India > News > Columnists > Manvendra Singh

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Pride and precedence

October 13, 2008

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The Congress party's DNA does not allow it to handle three subjects with insight, intellect or innovation. On most other issues the party comes up with interesting ideas, even if the process adopted is bizarre. But DNA is, in this case, essentially about memory and that is precisely the undoing of the Congress party when it comes to dealing with Pakistan, China, and the Indian armed forces. Not necessarily in the same breadth, but even as individual subjects.

While the principal culprit would of course be the invertebrate nature of the average Congressperson, the onus for this intellectual disaster falls squarely on the shoulders of late Prime Minister Nehru. The sheer scale of his capabilities and intellect when compared to what his contemporaries possessed created an aura of impenetrable proportions. It was, in a sense, India's first example of outsourcing wherein the party simply left thought to its leader. Whatever policy Nehru formulated was enshrined in party shastras. No reason to think again.

The ideas that the great leader bequeathed his small party did not require intelligence in implementing, as if they were cast in stone. But for the economic policy that was tossed out by an equally interesting leader, the late PV Narasimha Rao, the inability to think out of the box over Pakistan, China and the Armed Forces remains an enduring legacy. A brief attempt over these three issues during the term of the late Rajiv Gandhi came to naught as the enormous inertia of the Congress party checked him.

The same inertia has come to mark the incredibly inept handling of the armed forces Pay Commission crisis. The Government of India has compounded errors with its unbelievable ignorance about the grievance of the armed forces. The three chiefs have displayed their own ineptitude in how they've carried the message for their services, but more on that later.

The root of the crisis lies in the strange Indian practice of constituting a pay commission that would look at the army in Siachen and the additional secretary in South Block. How the two job requirements, and service ethos, can ever be written about on the same page defies explanation. Despite that the government did not appoint an armed forces member on the commission even when it had the opportunity to do so.

The end result of which is that the service headquarters are banging their heads on the wall to plead that the report as it stands is not implement able. Unlike what anybody has alluded to or accused the chiefs of not doing, the issue is not over pay, but over precedence. And as the doorman of any government official knows, it is precedence that carries the order of the day. But in this case the order of the day is going to have two very serious crises.

In the short term the government's ignorance, and insistence, is certain to wreck carefully crafted unified command structures in insurgency areas. Just as politicians stand accused of turning the socio-political clock back in the Kashmir valley, politicians can now also be accused of aiming to turn the operational clock back. The reason being that the Pay Commission has come up with its own formulations over pay and precedence.

While it had the authority to look into matters of pay, it did not have the licence to tamper with precedence. And by doing what it has done, it has ensured that the carefully worked out counter-insurgency mechanism stands on the verge of collapsing. The primacy accorded to the army vis-�-vis police, state and central, is being systematically being whittled away.

As a former journalist who covered the last Pay Commission, and its very sorry air force fiasco, suffice to say that what confronts the country today is far more serious. And insidious. The key officers accountable for India's tactics on the Line of Control [Images] or in anti-insurgency operations within are to lose the very precedence that has given them the authority to bring the situation to where it is.

While the responsibility devolved upon the state and central police forces, the control continued to spiral out of hand. It was only when the Army was deployed, and set into motion its own counter-insurgency grid, that a semblance of control could be seen. Now this same Army is being made accountable to the police forces in terms of precedence. When this has not happened in any other country in the world, how India could hope to re-invent this relationship is perplexing to say the least.

The second serious crisis is one the country will have to face when it goes into a conventional war. As per the war manual the Army takes command of the BSF and the Navy of the Coast Guard. When this tinkering of precedence has happened, who will now relinquish to whom? It is a very serious crisis of command and one which is testing the resilience of the three services.

There weren't any blogs during the last Pay Commission, and nor was there much of an email presence. Yet mobilisation happened on levels that could be termed scary. Both these new technologies have given much air to voices of those that have always remained mute.

In order to have the honour of wearing the President's commission an officer forfeits certain fundamental rights. This holds true for all ranks. The historical and global logic being that the sheer scale of that honour is enough to compensate for those losses. Those who have experienced the pleasure and honour of the uniform will vouch for the judiciousness of this exchange. So it is galling when the three chiefs seek to right a wrong and they're accused of sedition. Being soldiers they're of course meant, and seen, to be mum on all matters. But when honour is at stake it is the duty of all to stand up and be counted. For this is at the core of India's civilisation as enshrined in the Bhagvad Gita.

In their inexperience with politicians, and their ineptitude at being messengers, the chiefs were delivering the wrong message all this while. It had nothing to do with pay but with precedence. It is in the nature of all bureaucracies to encroach. The military bureaucracy also does it when given a chance. But this creeping encroachment encouraged by political blindness could cost the country very dearly. For at stake is the honour of India's armed forces, the institution that the country holds dearest. And giving it to those that the country loathes, in khaki, safari and white.

Manvendra Singh, MP, represents Barmer in the Lok Sabha

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