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Rajnath Singh's dilemma

June 22, 2019 07:27 IST

The defence minister has to correct a major asymmetry. Will his discipline come in the way?
Aditi Phadnis reports.

Defence Minister Rajnath Singh traveled to the Indian Army's Siachen base, his first trip outside New Delhi after being appointed Raksha Mantri.

IMAGE: Defence Minister Rajnath Singh traveled to the Indian Army's Siachen base, his first trip outside New Delhi after being appointed Raksha Mantri.

If Rajnath Singh was upset about being dropped from two Cabinet committees -- the Cabinet Committee on Political Affairs and the Cabinet Committee on Parliamentary Affairs -- he gave no public hint of it.

The only indication that he was a bit hurt at being de jure number two in the government but not considered important enough to be included in the committees was an off-hand remark, made with a smile.

'Kya mein tumhe chhe foot sey paanch foot ke lagne laga hoon? (do you think I now measure five feet instead of six?),' he asked an aide as TV channels chattered on loudly about how Rajnath Singh ka kad gir gaya hai (Rajnath Singh has lost his stature).

By the evening, the government had reversed the decision and reissued the notification.

Not once did he suggest/offer/threaten/to resign.

 

Discipline has served him well. From a nondescript member of the Uttar Pradesh legislative council to a second term as a member of the Cabinet Committee on Security has been punctuated by important milestones.

Rajnath Singh was UP's education minister, chief of the state unit of the party, president of the central BJP and a minister in the Union Cabinet several times.

To say nothing of the overt and covert roles he has performed on the orders of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the parent body of the Bharatiya Janata Party.

He was elected an MLA from Mirzapur in 1977 when he was just 26, a result of being associated with the student wing of the Jana Sangh during the Emergency and being jailed. The late 1980s and early 1990s in UP were the years of the rise of Kalyan Singh who appointed Rajnath Singh education minister in 1991.

One of his first moves as minister was to bring, through an ordinance, the anti-copying law, making copying a non-bailable offence -- which meant the onus of proving oneself innocent was on the accused. Fourteen and 15 year olds were sent to jail on charges of copying.

The pass percentage in the UP high school board examination for Class X in 1991 was 58.03. In 1992, after the anti-copying law was put in place, it slipped to 14.7.

Singh had to pay for his conviction: He contested the assembly election from Mohana, a student-dominated constituency near Lucknow in 1993, and was defeated comprehensively. He was sent to the Rajya Sabha in 1994. He became a minister in the Vajpayee and later the Modi government.

Now he has become defence minister for that very quality: Discipline. He is representing a BJP government which has come to power promising to champion the cause of soldiers afflicted by prolonged neglect, bureaucratic interference and marginalisation in defence policy-making.

The seeds of the deformed national security and defence architecture, and mistrust in civil-military relations were sown at the time of Independence when the British Indian armed forces were converting from an imperial garrison of a theatre command to a national army.

The origin of these uncivil relations is the oft-quoted dispute between the commader in chief Lord Kitchener and Viceroy Curzon. The insistence by Curzon to introduce an additional member in his executive council to exercise financial control was opposed by Kitchener.

150 years later, the legacy of that dispute lingers.

Except for Subhas Chandra Bose and Mahatma Gandhi who did not survive the aftermath of Independence, India's political leaders lacked military experience. Their single biggest fear, patently unfounded, was a military coup.

The existing army department was turned first into the department of defence and later the MoD. At the time, defence secretary H M Patel and his successor twice offered to integrate the service headquarters with MoD.

But General Rajindersinhji and General K S Thimayya refused, fearing they would lose operational command and the panoply of pomp and pageantry by joining the ministerial whirlpool.

Soon, the army got fully involved in J&K, Junagadh, Hyderabad and Goa operations. While its prestige rose, its clout gradually declined. It was not even consulted in deciding crucial operational issues.

Civilian bureaucracy, in cahoots with the political leadership, cut the services down to size.

The generals were careless and naïve not to notice the diminution in their stature and status. But the civilian bureaucracy at once grasped the import of civilian control and went about following a policy of divide and rule: Keeping divided the three wings of the armed forces and parrying proposals of their integration with the ministry, not without assistance from the services themselves.

From the stunning decline in the Warrant of Precedence to the erosion of financial and operational autonomy, the decline corroded promotions, postings, ceremonial functions and even distribution of canteen profits.

At one stage, the MoD also asked to scrutinise promotion exams and was told it was a professional matter.

It is this asymmetry that Rajnath Singh has to correct as defence minister. Will discipline come in the way?

Aditi Phadnis
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