It is hard to say when it is that the military stopped being the paragons of propriety in a social milieu increasingly bereft of basic values that people once saw reflected in men in olive green (or in air force blue and navy white) such as honour and honesty. There are still many officers of the old school for whom military is a career, yes, but also an orderly world of do’s and don’ts and simple pleasures and simpler certainties. There have been Service Chiefs who after demitting office rode bicycles because that’s all they could afford (Admiral R.L. Periera), or repaired without fuss to living in small, cramped, apartments because anything grander their pensions wouldn’t allow (Admiral Vishnu Bhagwat). But the officer cohorts that produced a Periera or a Bhagwat, also threw up Service Chiefs – no names, please, they have law on their side! – verily Kubla Khans who have built pleasure domes on a service chief’s salary and pension.
The Chief of Army Staff, General V.K. Singh, has blown up the comfortable milieu senior military brass cocoon themselves in, where every whim quite literally is a command, revealing just how dirty military life has become, how much corruption has seeped into and become part of the cantonment life. Of course, there were always officers from the support arms in the army — the Service Corps and Ordnance Corps, who were known for accumulating wealth at the public exchequer’s expense. General Singh actually hinted at a conspiracy — of Rs 14 crores being dangled as bait by retired officers he identifies as “the Adarsh lobby” in the hopes of implicating him in a bribery scandal. What the army chief’s revelations have done is loosened the dirt lining the military acquisitions system, permitting the muck and the scum to float to the top. Now all the rumours one heard about payouts to senior military officers years can be freely aired.
Over time, one has heard hearsay accounts, for instance, of a system of under-the-table payments by consortia of contractors and victuals suppliers to officers assuming the highest commands. Thus, an appointee to an army (theatre) commander’s post was richer, one was told a decade back, by Rs 3-4 crores. Today, the sum may be a multiple of this figure. It’s not clear, however, whether this is a one-time booty or recurring prize-money. The trouble is these sorts of payoffs have come to be viewed by many in army circles as perquisites of the job. In like vein, pelf at lower level is tolerated as an “equalization” measure relative to politicians and civil servants who routinely siphon off public funds.
The rot is wide and deep and spreading fast. What General Singh has put his finger on are the vendors, mostly foreign, of weapons systems, spares and service support either directly or through Defence Public Sector factories, involved in assembling imported systems or licensed production, who prop up this system of corruption. With the expenditure on acquisitions rocketing, so have the competitive stakes for foreign Companies, DPSUs, and Indian private sector firms entering the lucrative defence business. Consequently, more and more officers up and down the military acquisitions line – in the weapons and quality control directorates, units tasked with testing and short-listing, and in price negotiation committees, are tempted at every turn, and many succumb.
The Congress Party government’s initial response was remarkable for its insouciance and near indifference – the army chief should have lodged a First Information Report with the police! Par for the course, one supposes for a political party that, during its long years in office first perfected and then institutionalized corruption. Defence Minister A.K. Antony defended himself in Parliament saying General V.K. Singh informed him about the attempted bribery over sixteen months ago all right but was remiss in not following up with a written complaint without which piece of paper, the minister lamented, he couldn’t proceed. Why does that ring false? For one thing because Antony has turned his programme to root out corruption into a fetish, and someone so concerned with cleansing his ministry surely should not have stood on formalities. In the event, he neither reminded the army chief to send his charge in writing nor, in the interim, ordered an investigation, which he could have, and should have, done. Instead, he waited until now, when the story broke sixteen months later and the leads may have gone cold, to bring the Central Bureau of Investigation into the picture. Was this Antony’s Plan B if all this ever came to light?
In the wake of a tsunami of wrongdoing in the military, it is time to initiate two major reforms before it is too late. One is to institute “deep selection” of Service chiefs, with all Lieutenant General rank officers completing two years in that rank made eligible for consideration. This widening of the selection pool will at once weed out those who have advanced in their careers with only seniority to recommend them, leading to just too many duds as Service chiefs for it to be a coincidence, incentivize an entire cohort to strengthen their records with genuine achievements rather than coasting in their last few tenures, and prevent “succession planning” by unscrupulous former army chiefs as has happened in the case of the designated successor to V.K. Singh. The other measure is routinely to do deep and thorough background checks of not just the candidates for appointments to corps commander level up, but also their immediate families. It will prevent persons from becoming army chiefs, like the one who not too long ago held this post and was known for shedding tears usually for the camera, adorning his golf cart with the four stars of his rank, and deploying a large contingent of soldiers from his parent infantry unit at his residence to help run his wife’s textile fashions and export business. With such a man in the chief’s saddle, what message would have been conveyed to military officers except “mis-use your position to the max”?