Bottomline | Coup That Never Was

The fantastical story that has set back defence reforms

Pravin SawhneyPravin Sawhney

It was a coup by the media and Indian Army (IA) got blamed for it. It did not happen on January 16-17 night, but on April 4, when the news of the commissioning of nuclear-powered submarine INS Chakra into the Indian Navy was eclipsed, and any hopes of restructuring of the defence ministry were laid to rest. The powerful bureaucrat was the winner and the Indian military the loser.

More incredible than the news was its analysis on television channels where experts pontificated on deteriorating civil-military relations, the patriotism of the IA, disconnect between the army and the defence ministry as continuation of Chief of Army Staff (COAS), General V.K. Singh’s age problem, the lack of army’s war preparedness, letter leak and so on. None spoke about the basic issue: A coup, even if an army chief desires, cannot happen in India. This would have shredded the fantasy to smithereens.

The star on April 4 was the editor-in-chief of the Indian Express, Shekhar Gupta. Notwithstanding denials from all relevant quarters including PMO, defence minister, army chief, and the defence secretary, Shekhar stuck to his by-lined coup story basking in the new found glory as a crack reporter. ‘Well,’ he repeatedly said on several channels, ‘the facts are correct’. Two army units did move towards the Capital on the night of January 16-17, following the COAS’ going to the Supreme Court in the daytime; and the defence secretary, Shashi Kant Sharma did cut back his Malaysian trip to return home. Shekhar, who started his journalism career covering defence, was beaming because he probably does not know that an army coup is impossible in India. Had he known this he would have nipped the fictitious story in the bud rather than lend his weight to it. Or, maybe, he had other designs in mind.

To place the coup in perspective, let’s look at the factors that assist the Pakistan Army (PA) — equally professional as the IA — to overthrow its civilian political leadership. As majority of the PA troops come from the single province of Punjab, the homogeneity helps them rally under their army chief, usually from Punjab itself. This is not the case in the IA where heterogeneous troops come from across the country.

Unlike the IA, the PA has deliberately not created the designation of army commanders responsible for a war theatre. During peacetime, the nine corps commanders of the PA report directly to the COAS; this is operationally undesirable, but necessary for the army chief to maintain a firm grip. An army commander with three or four corps commanders under him would become too powerful for the COAS’ comfort. The way found by the PA is to have temporary army commanders in war; the senior-most corps commander holds the additional change of the Army Reserve North and Army Reserve South, each equivalent of a theatre. The IA has army commanders with enormous command authority; they are free to meet the defence minister bypassing the COAS if the situation so desires.

The Pakistani COAS is not one amongst equals, but has unprecedented clout as compared to his air force and navy counterparts. He is not dependent on them; they look up to him for directions. The Pakistan COAS is in an enviable position where he controls the entire spectrum of war. The nuclear weapons are under him, and ballistic missiles, also with him, are the preferred delivery vector. The PA has a variety and range of ballistic missiles so that the COAS is not dependent on the Pakistani Chief of Air Staff beyond conventional war. The COAS also controls irregular war elements through his DG, ISI.

The IA COAS, on the other hand is one of the service chiefs with little possibility of the other two services’ supporting him if he oversteps his authority. He is neither in the security policy-making loop nor does he control nuclear weapons. This is not all. Having always been on the fringes of the defence ministry, the IA COAS has all the responsibility without authority, the latter resting with the powerful bureaucracy. Why would bureaucrats agree to serve the COAS when they are already the boss and run the show by keeping the three services divided? And last, not the least, when 18 army regiments were already in the Capital on January 16-17 night in the run up to the Republic Day, what was the need for the army to raise hackles by requisitioning two more regiments?

A close look at the spooky story suggests that intelligence agencies have had the last laugh. They outmanoeuvred veteran journalists and South Block mandarins resulting in police barricades being erected against the coup which was not to be. Where does all this leave us? For sure, if there was any hope of defence ministry reforms for better integration of the defence services with their parent ministry, these will not happen. Let alone a Chief of Defence Staff or an equivalent rank officer, the long outstanding need to staff the defence ministry with service personnel will remain in cold storage. The bureaucrat will continue to rule the roost by serving himself and his political masters. The Indian Express story has certainly not helped the defence services’ cause.


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