His Story

With his autobiography, Gen. V.K. Singh further vents his frustration

By Pravin Sawhney

His Story - General V.K. Singh General V.K. Singh’s 26 months tenure as the chief of army staff (COAS) was unusual with the media feverishly keeping pace with the unfolding events. Stories of incompetence, unpreparedness for war, corruption, and conspiring leadership in the army were constantly jostling for space with omnipresent arms dealers and their nexus with civilian and army bureaucracy and defence PSUs. From the COAS’ office right up to the Prime Minister’s Office, the malaise seemed deep-rooted.

At the centre of it all stood General Singh, the epitome of rectitude determined to cleanse the system. Little wonder that the accomplished publisher, David Davidar persuaded the general to write his autobiography titled, ‘Courage and Conviction,’ which is sure to do good business for its salacious contents. On the serious note, three issues — army’s leadership, preparedness for war, and defence procurements — dealt with by the writer merit attention.

On leadership, he writes, ‘We are fooling ourselves if we thought that the rank and file was unaware of what was happening. Moreover, everything we did, or didn’t do, reflected on the institution.’

So, here was General Singh, born in 1951, but himself signed that he was born instead in 1950 as otherwise he would not have become an army commander and thence the four-star COAS. Sure, it was the ‘systems’ fault to have tinkered with his year of birth. Yet, the general’s moment of truth came when he was asked to sign on 1950. And he did. But he bided his time till he became the COAS. Only a self-obsessed officer would have pitted the army as its’ COAS against the government and thereafter drag it to the Supreme Court for personal redress.

The first 300 pages of his book show him suffering from the ‘I, Me, Myself’ leadership malady that he saw in others. At every stage of his career he reached out to the Military Secretary’s branch at Army Headquarters with help from his Rajput regiment senior officers for good postings, something only the ambitious lot, who place themselves before their command, do. Ironically, Gen. Singh doesn’t realise this. Instead, he points out, as leadership failing, ‘the zero error syndrome that has gripped our command structure today.’ Thus, the diminishing mutual respect between officers and the rank and file is at the heart of what ails the 13 lakh strong army today.

The leadership crisis led to defunct war preparedness, and the writer has been candid on this issue. The writer was responsible for training and operations of 11 corps in Jalandhar during the 10-month Operation Parakram in 2001-2002. He writes that, ‘The very first few days of Operation Parakram exposed the hollowness of our operational preparedness… A large number of mines had fuses that wouldn’t fit, and in true Indian Army style, the men would try and force the fuze in. Mine after mine exploded, killing men in numbers (over 500) that were shockingly high. Helplessly, the army kept sitting on the border, its men and equipment both victims of attrition.’

The situation in J&K, which has nearly 40 per cent army under the Northern Command, was equally pathetic. Writes Gen. Singh: ‘Northern Command further compounded the problem by declaring that it needed time for the troops — who are mostly deployed in a counter-insurgency role, to re-orient themselves (for conventional war).’

Yet, as COAS, General Singh vociferously defended the need for the army to continue with CI ops in the border state. Once the alarming situation during Operation Parakram where the army lacked equipment, training and orientation for war is juxtaposed with the writer’s letter written to the Prime Minister as the COAS a decade later in April 2011 (which got leaked) that the army was unfit for war, the inescapable conclusion stares in the face. Officers have a vested interest in continuing with CI ops in J&K as it gives laurels, rewards and status. Preparedness for conventional war gives them no such goodies. Thus, nothing short of political intervention would get the army focussed once again on its primary task of preparedness for war.

On procurements, the book is an eye-opener. According to the writer, each year unspent money of a service which has been allocated for its capital or equipment acquisitions during a financial year is re-appropriated. Instead of being available for the services’ procurement during the following financial year, the hefty amount finds way into the ruling political party’s coffers. As an aside, during the NDA government headed by Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee, it was decided that unspent defence amount would under a five-year roll on add-up to the next year’s annual allocations.

The writer dwells at length on the nexus between arms dealers, civil and military bureaucrats and PSUs. There are comments by General Singh on all issues (and they were many) that made news during his tenure as the COAS. These range from the fictitious army coup, to the Technical Services Division (TSD) which was nothing more than pro-active human intelligence set-up, to a purported line of succession system for the COAS made up by the bureaucracy, to the need to overcome shortage of officers, to abolishing the Sahayak system where soldiers are used by officers for household tasks, to the Ordnance Factory Board sitting over expensive documents on transfer of technology of Bofors guns which were purchased from the later blacklisted Swedish company, to the promotion ban on Lt General Dalbir Suhag on grounds of dereliction of duty (thereby preventing him from becoming the Eastern Army Commander). All in all, the book needs to be read by all people interested in India’s defence.
Courage and Conviction: An Autobiography
General V.K. Singh (with Kunal Verma)
Aleph, Rs 595, Pg 351


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