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'Mr Modi has the necessary initiative, necessary motivation, necessary national thinking to push things forward. Here's a man with proven ability,' says General Vijay Kumar Singh as he battles for the people's vote.
'India can become a superpower provided we shed a lot of things that have plagued us for the past 60 years," he says. 'One of them -- a major one -- is how the country has been divided for vote banks. We need to sort that out, it will take time, but I am sure once that is done, a lot of things will happen which will make this country good and powerful.'
Will General Singh become the first army chief to become an MP? Rediff.com's Archana Masih accompanied the general on the campaign trail, to find out if his appeal and message resonates with voters in the teeming city of Ghaziabad, Uttar Pradesh.
For 42 years, General Vijay Kumar Singh wore the crisp uniform of the Indian Army. Today, he wears a linen blue shirt, untucked at the waist over grey trousers and casual shoes. A cluster of sacred red and orange threads bind his wrist.
His election campaign begins early every day. On the day we meet, it had begun at 6.30 am with a yoga shivr in the Kavi Nagar area of Ghaziabad, Uttar Pradesh.
V K Singh - Purva Thal Sena Adhyakash -- V K Singh, Former Army Chief -- reads the board, outside his temporary home in Ghaziabad. Below, set in stone plaque, is the name of Rajnath Singh -- the president of the Bharatiya Janata Party and Ghaziabad's sitting MP -- in whose home the general has moved in during his campaign.
The ground floor is teeming with party workers and supporters. Two former generals are among the several who are assembled there that morning. Mehul Jain, an MIT graduate who helps with IT support and is about to be married in a few days, is in the front yard. A great admirer of the general, he carries a small shagun kalash in one hand and wedding invitations in the other.
At 8 am, breakfast is served -- alu, mooli parathas, alu sabzi, achaar. Tea and coffee. Soon after, Mrs Singh comes down from the first floor and greets everyone with a namaste as she and a group of women leave for campaigning for the day.
The general is running late. The morning engagements have spilled over. When he finally arrives, he strides past in his army-man gait, as a few gathered outside bend down to touch his feet.
"We don't have much time, if you take too much time, mai uth ke chale jaaounga (I'll leave)," the general says with a laugh, beginning a conversation that takes place in the house and on the road to the village of Arthala in the Ghaziabad district of Uttar Pradesh.
How much of your decision of joining the BJP was motivated because of Narendra Modi?
The basic motivation of joining the BJP was because its basic root thinking is nationalistic.
Of course, people there (in the BJP) also make a difference. Mr Modi is there, I have met him, he is a person with a vision. I find him as a person who has proved his ability.
Despite whatever friend Arvind Kejriwal preaches, there is tremendous amount of progress in Gujarat. So here is a man with 'proven ability' who I think has the necessary initiative, necessary motivation, necessary national thinking to push things forward.
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What according to you are India's foremost national security challenges?
If you look at national security, it is not just external challenges. National security is external, internal, environmental, economic -- anything that affects the health of the nation is national security.
If you are only looking at external issues, we need to look at our neighbours more carefully as to what our relationships are and how they are impacting us.
If you look at the internal scene, you have to look at the why and how of all the internal problems that are brewing in the country -- whether it is Naxalism or terrorism.
Do you think there is need for covert action to deal with Pakistan?
No. What we need with Pakistan is a constant stable policy so that the person knows what to expect and what not to expect.
Let us say if you have a pronounced, declared, retributive policy in place, I am sure a person is going to think ten times before he indulges in something.
What about the People's Liberation Army? The Indian Army has often felt its arms are tied in dealing with China.
When you deal with a neighbour, it is not just about military thinking, it is combined military-diplomatic-political thinking. You have to combine all these before you start initiating or taking action.
Unfortunately because of our structure and the way the armed forces are kept out of the decision-making loop, there are a lot of lacunas.
If you do win, how are you going to ensure that the armed forces have a better say in the way they are run in the background of the difficult relationship with the bureaucracy?
We will cross the bridges when we come to them. Let me assure you, our aim is that we in the armed forces and our veterans must get a better deal from a country which should be grateful to us.
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"Rest (of the interview) on the move, sir... late ho gaye (we are late)... A campaign volunteer bends down to inform the general, who quickly gets up and moves to the waiting car. He gives instructions on his short walk to the car and continues to do so once he is seated in the front seat.
General Singh, the Indian Army's 24th chief, retired from service in May 2012 and supported Anna Hazare's anti-corruption movement before joining the BJP on March 1.
"It takes too long to bring about a change if you are outside the system. You have to be in a place where you are a part of the decision making process, so I decided I must join a political front or party," he says as the car takes to the highway.
A native of Haryana, the general is a newbie in Ghaziabad, a sprawling constituency that touches Delhi on one end and Meerut on the other. The seat was vacated for him by Rajnath Singh and has been won by the BJP thrice since 1998.
"Yahan par ek galti kar rahe hain, BJP wale -- Modi ko nahin laa rahe hain (the BJP is making one mistake here, they haven't yet brought Modi here)" two Ghaziabad residents noted as we made our way to General Singh's home early that morning.
Pitted against Raj Babbar of the Congress (a four-time MP, from different UP constituencies), Shazia Ilmi of the AAP (AAP founder Arvind Kejriwal's home is also in Ghaziabad), Mukul Upadhyay from the Bahujan Samaj Party and Sudan Rawat of the Samajwadi Party -- it is a tough, multi-cornered fight to woo the 2.2 million voters of Ghaziabad.
In Arthala village, a large crowd of BJP supporters awaits the general in retired Master Dharampal's courtyard. BJP flags flutter on neighbouring houses as General VK takes the mike.
"If you have even a small amount of love for this nation, if you are worried about the future of you and your children, then you have one option. To make that a reality, you must vote for the BJP in great numbers," the general says in Hindi.
"Like Arjun had made the eye of the fish his only goal -- you should also have only one goal. If you have even a little love for me, then I urge you to create such an atmosphere between today and April 10, that people feel there is no other party in the fray."
The crowd breaks into applause.
Defence Minister A K Antony has been severely criticised for his handling of the ministry. Is it indecisiveness or is it incompetence?
Mr Antony is a very good human being. He is very honest, he has great regard and concern for the armed forces.
His problem is that the people who are in the ministry -- the bureaucracy -- tend to exploit things that don't happen.
For example -- if you were to say 'Sir, this will result in a major scandal', whether it results or not -- obviously, you have scared the man.
When your integrity and honesty is very high, you are absolutely upright, the first thing you will say is 're-examine it'. After that, the bureaucracy will send that file for re-examination and for 6 months it won't come back and there will be no decision.
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It is shocking that after Admiral D K Joshi's resignation, a month-and-a-half has passed and we don't still have a naval chief?
It is extremely sad. The media campaign that is going on against the smallest accident in the Navy which used to be routine earlier and never came out. Now there has been constant attack on the Navy for almost a year.
Obviously, the naval chief felt that everybody is blaming me, when I am asking for equipment they do not give it -- so he says 'Tthank you very much' and he's gone.
I admire his guts, but they should have placed a naval chief as soon as possible so that this void that has been felt is not there.
What drew you to Anna Hazare?
Anna Hazare was literally abandoned by people who climbed over his shoulders to meet their personal aspirations. They made use of him.
I saw what had happened. When I made the Jantantra Morcha, one of the things I did was approach him if he would like to join. We looked at things in a similar way as he was and we made him a patron.
As part of the Jantantra Yatras we brought him back to the same high level at which he had been abandoned.
So when he launched the agitation for passing the Lok Pal Bill, it made an impact because he had gone back to the same level of importance.
He is a simple man. I have visited his village. He has done tremendous amount of good work and he is a veteran (Mr Hazare served in the Indian Army). That's what drew me to him.
Is he more supportive of the BJP than of other parties?
I don't think he supports any political party. He looks at things differently. He wants to retain his independence and that is the way he has worked for so many years.
In hindsight, would you have done anything differently about your age row? Your detractors say you brought disrespect to the Chief's office?
These detractors don't even know what they are talking of. If being servile and not doing anything for the armed forces and raising a voice for your own people means being a good person then 'Thank you very much.' I don't want to be that.
You are paid to ensure that your force gets what is needed. For that you have to fight, not make your own equations with the political and bureaucratic system so that you can get a plum post after retirement. They have forgotten what the force was wanting and that's why we are not in a very good state.
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"Har Har Modi.. nahi chahiye, ghar ghar Modi nahi chahiye, ghar ghar jhadoo chahiye (Every home does not need a Modi, every home need a broom), Shazia Ilmi declares at a campaign meeting in the Shalimar Garden area in Ghaziabad, accompanied with workers, drummers and singers on stage.
"When such a diggaj neta (important leader) like Rajnath Singh could not do anything for the people of Ghaziabad, will a new neta be able to do anything? Think about it?" she thunders, as people wearing AAP caps cheer her on in the small park.
Suman Chaudhry, whose son is a lieutenant in the army, thinks otherwise.
"Military wale, na, kayde kanoon wale hotey hai. Kuch kayda-kannon toh layenge yeh (militarymen follow rules and discipline. He'll bring some of that at least), she says, as Rajni Sharma, who accompanied her to the general's meeting, adds: "Pehli baar politics mein utrey hai, pehli baar aadmi kaam bhi accha katrta hai (a first timer in politics always does better work)."
The sprawling constituency of Ghaziabad has a sizeable population of veterans and those who served in the armed forces. "The fauj is like a family and the country is like my family," the general tells his audience, standing under a neem tree.
"Please join me in raising your voices for your country. Say it loud so that the whole town knows that the voice is coming out from Arthala village..."
"Bharat Mata ki Jai."
Mr Modi's detractors say he is authoritarian, that power is concentrated in his person -- do you think India needs a leadership like that?
Indira Gandhi was a very good leader, very good decision-maker. Do people call her authoritarian?
They do so. Did she not achieve what she set out to? She achieved that.
Let us not get moulded into these cliches that so and so is authoritarian, so and so is soft. I can quote you each of the people's capability who is talking of these things.
What do you want? Do you want a weak leader who can't take decisions? Do you want a feeble mind? We have suffered for ten years because of that.
You want a person who can take responsibility for a decision that is taken for the benefit of the country.
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Are you confident India can become a superpower?
India can become a superpower provided we shed a lot of things that have plagued us for the past 60 years. One of them -- a major one -- is how the country has been divided for vote banks.
We need to sort that out, it will take time, but I am sure once that is done a lot of things will happen which will make this country good and powerful in its own way.
Parliament has been dysfunctional in the last Lok Sabha. How can it be made more accountable to the people who elect it?
People have to elect leaders who will deliver. Who do not involve themselves in rhetoric and forget about what they are supposed to do.
We should have the right to recall. If people are not behaving -- people should have the right to say -- 'Thank you very much, get back, we don't want you'.
We need a procedure that will put this accountability on people's representatives.
You are seen as an honest man, you are entering the dust and dirt of Indian politics. Are you apprehensive about this journey?
You are you. If you put on jeans today and a sari tomorrow, will you change? You will not. Your inner self will not change.
It doesn't make a difference where you are, you should be conscious of the fact as to what your values are. That is what is important.
With just a week left for campaigning to end, General Singh is electioneering on a war-footing.
From the time his candidature was announced, he had just about 20 days for this poll battle ahead of him. Narendra Modi will address a rally in Ghaziabad on Thursday, April 3 -- interestingly, the day Field Marshal S H F J Manekshaw, arguably independent India's most celebrated military leader, was born 100 years ago. The general's political managers feel the Modi rally would be a good boost for his campaign.
The general is the second Army Chief after then General (later Field Marshal) K M Cariappa to contest a Lok Sabha election. Field Marshal Cariappa and General V K Singh both belong to the Rajput Regiment.
'Kipper' Cariappa contested the 1971 Lok Sabha election from the Bombay North East seat as a Shiv Sena-supported Independent candidate. He was defeated, but this is a battle General V K Singh wants to win.