General Bikram Singh will need a lot of help from the government
What can be said about the chief of army staff (COAS), General V.K. Singh except that he is self-obsessed. First, he slighted the government by approaching the Supreme Court; now he is insulting the army by washing dirty linen in public through the media. What would he do next? Should the government ignore his contretemps, or, learning from experience, curb his destructive demeanour? I would advise the latter, simply because stakes are high; all this is adding to the COAS-designate Lt General Bikram Singh’s woes.
To recapitulate, here is the tale thus far. General Singh has a problem with his age. He was born in 1951, but for promotions he committed himself (three times in writing) to year 1950. Had he not done so, he may not have been the COAS. Once he reached the topmost rung, he wanted the defence minister to correct his age; the implicit motive being to get a year’s extension in office. When the defence ministry refused to partake in this monkey-business, in an unprecedented manoeuvre, he approached the Supreme Court. Sidestepping his age issue as being of little consequence, the highest court told him what the government had said: Honour your commitment. The day the judgement was announced rubbishing his logic, the media queried if he would resign. He instead declared that he stood vindicated and would complete his term in office. At this stage, it was assumed that the unsavoury issue was a closed chapter. Not for the COAS. Within days, he got his daughter to give an interview to Outlook weekly repeating all that he had been saying so far. A couple of weeks later, he followed it up by giving an exhaustive interview to Outlook decrying that the Supreme Court judgement had caused more confusion. What was that about, you wonder? His grudge: Why did the Court not say that he was born in 1951? Well, you take a deep breath and let bygones be bygones. Till it occur to you like a flash that this man has a sinister game which he is determined to play out.
In his most recent interview to The Week, General Singh has claimed that army insiders have spent huge amounts to tarnish his image through propaganda and by falsifying his birth certificate. Really? Didn’t he himself start all this, and still continues to push it. Why is he going on nauseatingly about his age, when both the government and judiciary have given their verdict on that? Discerning people are tired of his tantrums. And what about the canards spread in the media about his successor? That his daughter-in-law is of Pakistani origin and that he committed human rights abuses. Why should anyone waste time on General Singh when he is two months away from oblivion.
This exactly is his problem. He dreads walking into oblivion, and is using the media to stay relevant. He thinks that his tirades in the media may get him one of the two things. The government in order to silence him may offer him a plum job after May 31, which is unlikely. Or he may endear himself so much to the media that after superannuation he becomes a star byte-giver on the army and defence governance. What he forgets is that like him, the media is brutally self-obsessed. They need a story a day which a serving General Singh can provide, not a retired general if he does not make sense.
However, the immediate issue is what to do with the COAS who is flogging his own army? Does he realise that he is talking about command break-down if what he says that insiders are conspiring against him is indeed true? Here, defence minister Antony has a responsibility he should not duck. He should haul up the COAS and tell him sternly to shut up. Failing which, he should be told to proceed on leave pending retirement. The COAS-designate should be asked to come to Delhi and officiate till he takes over as the COAS. Unusual times require unusual actions. Who would have thought that the army would have a paranoid COAS who would start a public witch-hunt within?
Where does all this leave General Bikram Singh when he assumes office in South Block? Top on his list should be the need to direct his senior commanders to settle down. There is enough rot in the army’s higher echelons that needs cleansing. The army’s young officers and the rank and file are settled; they care about their units and not much about the higher-ups with whom their interaction is minimal.
The other important issue is to restore operational credibility of the service. ‘Transformation’ and ‘Cold Start’ doctrine ought to be debated further within and also discussed with the political leadership, something that does not seem to have happened. Unlike the air force and the navy, the army with boots on the ground, requires political clearance before it drastically alters Order of Battle (ORBAT). Should India have a mountain strike corps facing China? Considering China’s inconsequential deployment facing us, how many troops eventually should be deployed against them, is a question with diplomatic implications. Is it credible to have large number of troops without requisite infrastructure (which the army can do little about) in Arunachal Pradesh? Lack of infrastructure, communications and enough storage facilities also affects operational logistics, the key to conventional war credibility in mountains opposite China. What effect will China’s potent cyber war and space capabilities have over army operations with China? What about plethora of Chinese ballistic missiles? Last, but not the least, how does the army fight a war with China when they have excellent unified command with Tibetan Autonomous Region being a single war theatre? The above are a few pertinent questions without which war preparedness would be hollow.
On Pakistan, the entire war doctrine requires a revisit. The Cold Start doctrine was unveiled by the COAS, General N.C. Vij in 2004. What has been accomplished eight years since needs to be asked? Will the army adopt battle groups concept or remain with strike corps or have both? What about the infrastructure close to the border required for a heavy punch within days of the war? How will the war in mountains be different given two major changes: One, the Chinese front requires more attention and two, the growing physical closeness between Chinese and Pakistani troops in POK and Northern Areas?
Probably, the most important question for the new COAS will be to review the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA). Will the army continue with it, or will it be amenable to changes. It is easy to stick to status quo; it is difficult to take calculated risks. I recall when the late COAS, General B.C. Joshi in 1994 decided to raise 30 battalions of Rashtriya Rifles from within the army’s own resources in a record 10 months period, there was a hue and cry over it. Hardly anyone, including me, thought it was a good idea. Today, in hindsight, it can be said that General Joshi was an army chief we all are proud of. In an age when the US and developed nations are struggling with their counter-terrorism doctrines, RR may well be the best, and is certainly the largest, counter-insurgency force in the world. Considering that ground realities have changed enormously in Jammu and Kashmir, does the army need to have nearly 70,000 RR troops there? The question of RR resembles Siachen; the government will be most reluctant to decide on both without the army on board. While there is merit in the army being against the Siachen resolution until Pakistan agrees to mutually authenticate ground position, the RR’s case appears in a different category. Insiders say that the army will not accept downsizing the RR as it is a temporary and not a permanent force. In one stroke, the army would lose numerous vacancies for officers and a large troops’ strength. This may not be entirely correct. But, then the army has not really given a fair justification of why AFSPA should not be modified and RR strength reduced.
Once the army’s war-fighting doctrines have political clearance, modernisation should be pursued vigorously. The two-year tenure of the present COAS, where he has been committed more to himself than the army, has not helped army’s modernisation. The glaring operational gaps need to be plugged; this requires building a personal relationship with the defence ministry. The army cannot continue to keep bashing the government on specious grounds.