Gen. V.K. Singh should ensure that he is remembered for things other than his age
I feel sorry for the mess that the army chief, General V.K. Singh has got himself into on his age controversy. If only he had not made the blunder of allowing his predecessor General Deepak Kapoor to determine his fortune, he would not have come to this vexed pass, and the army, the hallowed institution he heads, would have been spared the ridicule of media and apathy of bureaucrats in the defence ministry.
I have not met the chief on this matter, but given the numerous reports and interest in the issue, the search engine Google has a separate page titled ‘General V.K. Singh age’ with abundant hits. Whatever the outcome of the confrontation which has been joined, the chief can still make lemonade for the army from the lemon that it appears to have got.
It was an open and shut case. Between his matriculation certificate and the NDA form, the legal opinion and commonsense would accept the former. Without doubt, his date of birth is 10 May 1951. Why at the time of his promotion to the rank of Lt. General did he commit to being a year older? He says that in true military tradition while accepting General Kapoor’s ruling, he urged him to be fair. Why should anyone be fair to General Singh when he has been unfair to himself! Herein lies the problem and tongues are waging. It is being said that he accepted his superior’s diktat as he was scared of being passed over for the higher rank. Having written twice to the military secretary after becoming Lt General, why did he not insist on age clarification before becoming the Chief of Army Staff? Did he want his cake and eat it too?
He has embarked on a confrontationist path with no possible compromise. After the rejection of his contention by the defence ministry, he has put in a statuary complaint with the defence minister, A.K. Antony. The said part of his complaint appeals to the minister’s good sense, while the unsaid part informs him that General Singh’s case is legally strong.
This, the chief has garnered opinion from four retired Chief Justices of India and a former Attorney General. He even did an overreach by persuading 37 Members of Parliament to meet the Prime Minister to consider his case sympathetically; they were told that the army should remain apolitical.
In turning down his earlier application, the defence ministry had sought legal opinion from the law minister, who ruled that the general’s written commitment had sealed the matter. Why will Antony give a contrary verdict on the chief’s statuary complaint? Surely, he is not intimidated by the obvious: armed with legal opinions in his favour, the chief may approach the judiciary for justice. If indeed this happens, as the build-up of events suggests, there would be a lot of mess. Antony could do a Vishnu Bhagwat on V.K. Singh; or the army’s succession plan could suffer. Even if the chief was to get a year’s extension, how would the army gain? I am sure the chief would have thought about the lemon that the army would get in this show-down. Given the importance of personalised relationship, the defence ministry would sit over army files than move them. Reports suggest that the army’s modernisation plans for raising formations for the eastern front have been stumped; the sought for amount is being questioned by the defence ministry.
Can the chief do much for the army when he is being seen as unfriendly if not entirely hostile to the ministry? To recall, on assuming office, he spoke about restoring values and dignity in the army which had taken a knock following a series of corruption scandals involving senior brass. He had told me that the army needed to get on with professionalism. This sounded real because in his earlier appointment as the Eastern Army Commander, he had done a transformational study for the army: The need to adjust to hybrid wars and building capabilities for a two-front war. Given the burgeoning capabilities of our adversaries, it is critical especially for the service with boots on the ground (India has border disputes on two-fronts) to meet the challenge with appropriate doctrines, infrastructure, acquisitions, and operational coordination with other services. That we lack in most of these areas is by itself not the difficulty. The problem is that most service chiefs, and on cue, the senior brass project an image of preparedness that does not exist. This is not all. Through non-standard improvisations and unnecessary risk-taking with platforms that have long outlived their employability, an illusion of perfectness is routinely projected.
It is argued that hiding or inflating capabilities provides deterrence. In an age where real-time surveillance capabilities exist, this thinking is both archaic and dangerous. Take the case of the army. Which discerning observer does not know that it lacks credible firepower, aviation assets, air defence capabilities, network-centricity and so on. But have we heard any senior officer say that these assets are critical for preparedness? An unnecessary smoke screen in the name of national security is created to push matters under the rug. General Singh would do a service to the army if he speaks about the capabilities needed for strategic-defence against China and operational level offence against Pakistan. The army would long remember him for this.