Friday 20 January 2012

Gen Singh fights for truth, honour (PO)

By M D Nalapat
In the interests of transparency, let it be recorded that this columnist is a supporter of the present Chief of Army Staff of the Indian army, General V K Singh. Although he has never met him, several have given glowing accounts of the general’s integrity and devotion to service. Unfortunately, because of the extremes of corruption found within the Indian political establishment, those elected to high office usually ensure that civilian officials who are willing to go along with their money-making schemes be given promotions and higher responsibility. A “Gresham’s Law” begins to operate in the civil service, whereby corrupt officers drive out the good from high-voltage posts. Because they know that progress in their careers depends on theMinister Saheb’s favour,and that the shortest route to such favour is to help the minister and his family and friends make money,many officials get tempted into courses of action that are well beyond the bounds of ethics and sometimes,even of law. The nexus between corrupt officials and compliant officials has resulted in India having one of the worst-performing civil service structures in the world,as bad as the worst elsewhere,and far below the standard in countries of similar size.

Although the Indian military is still one of the most honest and professional armed forces in the world,it is a fact that politicians and corrupt civilian officials have for long sought to play favourites within the men and women in uniform. An extreme example of this was Prime Minister Nehru getting appointed a relative, B M Kaul,to a sensitive command,when the general’s primary experience was in ensuring that the military’s motor cars ran smoothly. Soon after the appointment, Lt-Gen Kaul (mis)led his troops to disaster at the hands of the PLA. Although most officers have resisted the siren call of politicians, a few have fallen for such lures and have broken away from the code of conduct expected of an officer in the armed forces.When this fact was pointed out by this columnist in the “Times of India” in 1997,he got some vitriolic rejoinders from a few retired officers,whose claim was that thearmed forces were “spotless and had no black sheep”.Interestingly,the most vitriolic riposte was penned by an officer involved in the arms trade,and who presumably should have known that his protestations of 100% innocence were false.

However,since then,more and more evidence has come to light about the few within the higher ranks of the military in India who do not resist the lure of money and official favour,and who therefore connive at decisions that are sub-optimal for the forces but which generate huge sums as bribes. Sadly,some of these compromised elements have (with political backing) reached the highest levels of the military,and have subsequently been accomodated in prize civilian posts General V K Singh is different from many of his predecessors,in that he has made a determined effort to cleanse the higher ranks of the military of the few whose conduct stains the name of a great institution.India and the people of this country owe much to themilitary,which is why General Singh’s effort to ensure accountability and honesty are so welcome.Naturally,this drive against graft has made the presentChief of Army Staff persona non grata among that section of politicians and officials ( both uniformed and otherwise) who have enriched themselves hugely through the tens of billions of dollars in defense contracts that the Indian taxpayer has funded. However,those who admire the Indian armed forces (as does this columnist) wish that the circumstances of his accession to the top military post were not because of the hounding of a brother officer by those unseen hands unhappy at his zeal in fighting corruption in the giving of defense contracts.

That the general was born in 1951 and not 1950 seems beyond doubt. That a branch of the army (which ought not to have been involved in such an issue in the first place) erred in adding an extra year to his life seems patent. What is unfortunate is the obstinacy of the Ministry of Defense in refusing to accept General Singh’s sporting offer to quit in May 2012 (as though he were a year older than he is),if only the MoD admitted that he had not lied about his age. There are civilian officials in the MoD who seek to constantly thrust the doctrine of Civilian Supremacy” into the faces of the military on every occasion,and it is presumably this mindset that prevented a compromise from being worked out. On being - in effect - called a liar,General Singh exercised his constitutional right and went to the Supreme Court,which has been asked to ascertain just who is a liar,General Singh or the establishment which brands him as one. This must be a sad day for Defense Minister A K Antony,who is himself of sterling character,although prone to accepting the advice of the officials briefing him.

The military,like any other institution spending huge amounts of taxpayer cash,should be subjected to a high level of transparency in its operations. Over the past thirteen years,there have been too many reports of misfeasance in matters of procurement, beginning a year before the Kargil skirmishes of 1999. Although this has been spun as a great victory,the fact is that the army allowed itself to be caught napping when General Musharraf’s special forces occupied peak after peak in one of the most sensitive border zones in India. None of the top generals responsible for this failure has had his career blighted.Instead,some have since been handsomely promoted. The failure to critically examine the lapses which led to the Kargil operation and to fix responsibility at the top of the chain of command (rather than pick off scapegoats lower down) has been a danger sign.

To his credit,General Singh did not follow his predecessors in ignoring it,but began taking strong action to ensure a clean and effective force. Had he been given an extra year,the Indian army would have been the better for it. Apart from a handful of officers who pander to politicians and officials,another anomaly is the recent system of “quotas” in promotion lists. A modern army changes its composition over time,or ought to.Because the Germans recognized the importance of tank corps and the French did not,the former trounced the latter in 1940. In modern warfare,the relative roles of infantry, artillery, engineers and others is very different from the past,which is why it is unfortunate that the various wings of the military have had their promotion quotas frozen in a way that goes against the concept of the evolution of warfare and strategy.

Indeed,India would be best advised to spend the money being used up in the purchase of super-expensive aircraft and aircraft carriers in creating a versatile offensive and defensive missile system. As the efficacy of NATO operations has shown,these days missiles are a core weapon of war. Had the MoD encouraged its production in the private sector,by now India would have been as important a manufacturer of missiles as France. Instead,it has been spending billions of dollars in buying missiles from overseas. Relying on foreign countries for core defense needs carries risks that are obvious. Sadly, these have been ignored by the bureaucrats at the Ministry of Defense,most of whom know about as much of missiles as a high-school student.Indeed,less,because these days,such students are far more aware than those much older,thanks to the internet. That Civilian Control is crucial in a democracy is a given,and it is to the credit of General Singh that he has never challenged this axiom. However,when decisions get taken on the basis of considerations extraneous to the professional,then it is the duty of a true officer to seek to ensure that ethics get followed. General Singh has distinguished himself for such a quality,unlike some predecessors who concentrated on picking up expensive tracts of land and property at hugely subsidised prices,and who are today ranged against him.

A massive disinformation campaign has been launched by the middleman fraternity to discredit General Singh (who may be forced to go on leave immediately,thereby bringing his efforts at cleansing the military to be ended). However,he has refused to bow to such innuendo,and is holding his head high,aware that truth and honour are on his side.Even if he loses the administrative battle,and even the legal (because of the volumes of evidence that is being created against him, General V K Singh will enter the annals of military history in India as An Officer and a Gentleman who sought to ensure transparency and accountability at the very top of the ranks of officers of what remains a superb military force .

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