Friday, June 1, 2012

No Favouritism in Army

 By Bharat Karnad 

On the weekend prior to demitting office, General V K Singh, using the media, publicly firebombed the government one last time as Chief of Army Staff (COAS). Separately interviewed by the main television channels intent on wringing the last few drops of sensationalism out of the situation, he gave notice that the government can expect more criticism in the future. Actually, a retired VK may prove a bigger thorn in the Congress coalition government’s side. In the know of everything that’s afoot in the army, and all the decisions in the pipeline, VK can be expected to hold his successor’s, the defence ministry’s, and the government’s feet to the fire. Several of VK’s immediate predecessors, it was known in army circles, were susceptible to corruption — the reason why his elevation two years back was welcomed by great many upright serving and retired officersThis, of course, raises the question: How is it that persons with soiled reputations get effortlessly promoted in the army, even as genuinely capable officers have their careers sidelined? The explanation is that a motivated army chief can play havoc with the promotion boards — throw out the grain, keep the chaff. I mean, how does a Tejinder Singh, the conduit for filthy lucre as alleged by VK, become director-general, Defence Intelligence Agency, for god’s sake?

One issue, however, remains unanswered: Why did VK approach the Supreme Court to ‘restore’ his honour, rather than asking for an adjudication on his age? By making his personal ‘honour’ the principal legal concern, VK afforded the court which was wary of getting sucked into this controversy the escape route of getting the government to withdraw the offending document that reiterated the wrong age. It is no use for him to now claim that the judges were leaning in the direction “the wind was blowing”. He undermined his own chances and voided the possibility of a ruling on whether or not, for government service purposes, the school-board exam certificate is the only proof.

The in-coming COAS, General Bikram Singh, doesn’t have the soldierly credentials of VK and, during his tenure, will be operating under a cloud, his every decision under the microscope. He will be like the teacher’s pet appointed class monitor on the basis of connections, not merit. In Bikram’s case, the ‘succession plan’ crafted by General J J Singh, ignobly furthered by his successor, Deepak Kapoor, involved in the Adarsh housing scam, and diligently propelled by the government, will hang round his neck like the dead albatross on the ancient mariner.

Despite burning its fingers, this government is apparently convinced that pre-selection is a good thing and the next man in has already been so anointed. Except, by putting the present GOC, III Corps, Lieutenant General Dalbir Singh Suhag’s promotion as army commander on hold, VK has presented Bikram with a dilemma. He countermands VK’s rules-wise correct show-cause notice to Suhag, as desired by many in the government, and he further besmirches his reputation. Or, he lets the order stand, derails the next stage of the succession plan of an army command for Suhag, and courts enmity of the very people who helped him reach the top. Bikram’s strength of character, or lack of it, will soon become evident.

Many people wonder if VK’s actions have ‘politicised’ the army. In a citizen army, the average officer and jawan alike is socially conscious and politically aware. However, army discipline and tight-lipped, straight-backed demeanour are usually mistaken for political naivete by politicians and civil servants. It is the use by the latter two of their own more elastic morality and ethics in dealing with the military and when deciding on national security matters that poses the greatest danger to the republic.

The Congress has a track record of destroying institutions by playing favourites. Indira Gandhi undermined the integrity of the Indian Administrative Service during Emergency from which the IAS has not recovered.Constitutional rights were suspended and a ‘committed bureaucracy’ obtained by choosing select babus for certain posts. These babus bent rules and did her bidding. Up until then, promotions were generally on merit, and postings of civil servants were as per vacancy, and the entire process was managed by the chief secretaries in the states and the cabinet secretary at the Centre. It was too useful an innovation, however, for subsequent non-Congress governments to give up, except they were less brazen about it than the Congress.

Unfortunately, during Emergency some favour-seekers among flag-rank officers, disregarding a military officer’s code of conduct, visited persons believed close to Sanjay Gandhi. That era is long gone, but uniformed officers still seek politicians’ help in promotions and postings, albeit more discreetly these days. However, if pre-selecting favourites for the top posts in the three Armed Services becomes the new norm, there’s nothing to stop the venal politician-bureaucrat nexus from auctioning off these posts to officers who promise the most returns, in the manner Delhi Police and other state police reportedly do when filling positions in ‘lucrative’ police thanas. See where this is going?

The frightening thing to consider is that the Congress government is now insinuating practices it has perfected elsewhere in government in its dealings with the military. Hoisting chosen persons into choice slots is one such practice. The motivation is not hard to fathom. With thousands of billions of dollars worth of hardware purchases in the pipeline, if you apply the 15 per cent standard, revealed by the Confederation of Indian Industry’s then top honcho, Tarun Das, in the Nira Radia tapes, that amounts to how much by way of commission/cut to the politicians? Do the math. In the event, it is good business to appoint your own chaps to manipulate the field tests, the weapons short list, and the terms from foreign suppliers.

The fact is the Armed Forces being a microcosm of Indian society, most of the societal ills have been steadily seeping into the military for a while now. Like all things bad their progress has been rapid.

(Views expressed in the column are the author’s own)

Bharat Karnad is professor at Centre for Policy Research and Development

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