Playing Favourites

On the weekend prior to demitting office, General V.K. Singh, using the media, publicly firebombed the government one last time as Chief of Army Staff (COAS). Separately interviewed by the main television channels intent on wringing the last few drops of sensationalism out of the situation, he gave notice that the government can expect more criticism in the future. Actually, a retired VK may prove a bigger thorn in the Congress Party coalition government’s side. In the know of everything that’s afoot in the army, and all the decisions in the pipeline, VK can be expected to hold his successor’s, the Defence Ministry’s, and the government’s feet to the fire. Several of VK’s immediate predecessors, it was known in army circles, were susceptible to corruption – the reason why his elevation two years back was welcomed by great many upright serving and retired officers. This, of course, raises the question: How is it that persons with soiled reputations get effortlessly promoted in the army, even as genuinely capable officers have their careers sidelined? The explanation is that a motivated army chief can play havoc with the promotion boards – throw out the grain, keep the chaff. I mean, how does a Tejinder Singh, the conduit for filthy lucre as alleged by VK, become Director-General, Defence Intelligence Agency, for god’s sake?

But one issue, however, remains unanswered: Why did VK approach the Supreme Court to “restore” his honour, rather than asking for an adjudication on his age? By making his personal ‘honour’ the principal legal concern, VK afforded the Court which was wary of getting sucked into this controversy the escape route of getting the government to withdraw the offending document that reiterated the wrong age. It is no use for him to now claim that the judges were leaning in the direction “the wind was blowing”. He undermined his own chances and voided the possibility of a ruling on whether or not, for government service purposes the school-board exam certificate is the only proof.

The in-coming COAS, General Bikram Singh, doesn’t have the soldierly credentials of VK and, during his tenure, will be operating under a cloud,  his every decision under the microscope. He will be like the teacher’s pet appointed class monitor on the basis of connections, not merit. In Bikram’s case, the “succession plan” crafted by General J.J. Singh, ignobly furthered by his successor, Deepak Kapoor, involved in the Adarsh housing scam, and diligently propelled by the government, will hang round his neck like the dead albatross on the ancient mariner.

Despite burning its fingers, this government is apparently convinced that pre-selection is a good thing and the next man in has already been so anointed. Except, by putting the present GOC, III Corps, Lieutenant General Dalbir Singh Suhag’s promotion as army commander on hold, VK has presented Bikram with a dilemma. He countermands VK’s rules-wise correct show-cause notice to Suhag, as desired by many in the government, and he further besmirches his reputation. Or, he lets the order stand, derails the next stage of the succession plan of an army command for Suhag, and courts enmity of the very people who helped him reach the top. Bikram’s strength of character, or lack of it, will soon become evident.

Many people wonder if VK’s actions have “politicized” the army. In a citizen army, the average officer and jawan alike is socially conscious and politically aware. But army discipline and tight-lipped, straight-backed demeanour are usually mistaken for political naivete by politicians and civil servants. It is the use by the latter two of their own more elastic morality and ethics in dealing with the military and when deciding on national security matters that poses the greatest danger to the republic.

The Congress Party has a track record of destroying institutions by playing favourites. Indira Gandhi undermined the integrity of the Indian Administrative Service during the Emergency in the mid-1970s from which the IAS has not recovered. Constitutional rights were suspended and a “committed bureaucracy” obtained by choosing select babus for certain posts. These babus bent rules and did her bidding. Up until then, promotions were generally on merit, and postings of civil servants were as per vacancy, and the entire process was managed by the Chief Secretaries in the states and the Cabinet Secretary at the centre. It was too useful an innovation, however, for subsequent non-Congress governments to give up, except they were less brazen about it than the Congress party.

Unfortunately, during the Emergency some favour-seekers among flag-rank officers, disregarding a military officer’s code of conduct, visited persons believed close to Sanjay Gandhi. That era is long gone, but uniformed officers still seek politicians’ help in promotions and postings, albeit more discreetly these days. However, if pre-selecting favourites for the top posts in the three Armed Services becomes the new normal, there’s nothing to stop the venal politician-bureaucrat nexus from auctioning off these posts to officers who promise the most returns, in the manner Delhi Police and other state police reportedly do when filling positions in “lucrative” police thanas. See where this is going?

The frightening thing to consider is that the Congress government is now insinuating practices it has perfected elsewhere in government in its dealings with the military. Hoisting chosen persons into choice slots is one such practice. The motivation is not hard to fathom. With thousands of billions of dollars worth of hardware purchases in the pipeline, if you apply the 15% Kamal Nath standard, revealed by the Confederation of Indian Industry’s then top honcho, Tarun Das, in the Nira Radiia tapes, that amounts to how much by way of commission/cut to the politicians? Do the math. In the event, it is good business to appoint your own chaps to manipulate the field tests, the weapons short list, and the terms from foreign suppliers.

The fact is the Armed Forces being a microcosm of Indian society, most of the societal ills have been steadily seeping into the military for a while now. Like all things bad their progress has been rapid.

[Published in the ‘New Indian Express’ as “No favouritism in army” on June 1, 2012 at]

About Bharat Karnad

Senior Fellow in National Security Studies at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi, he was Member of the (1st) National Security Advisory Board and the Nuclear Doctrine-drafting Group, and author, among other books of, 'Nuclear Weapons and Indian Security: The Realist Foundations of Strategy', 'India's Nuclear Policy' and most recently, 'Why India is Not a Great Power (Yet)'. Educated at the University of California (undergrad and grad), he was Visiting Scholar at Princeton University, University of Pennsylvania, the Shanghai Institutes of International Studies, and Henry L. Stimson Center, Washington, DC.
This entry was posted in civil-military relations, Indian Army, Indian Politics, Internal Security, Military Acquisitions. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Playing Favourites

  1. adi says:

    I have a question rather than a reply to your piece. From all the writing that has gone on about the VK episode do you think the past Chiefs did a disservice to the nation by toeing the govt’s line under the guise of civilian supremacy? Because it will be incredibly naieve to think they did not know how the ‘glorified’ apolitical nature of the force was actually scuttling the morale and preparedness of the army by allowing the civil bureaucracy to rule supreme. Furthernore, if army is indeed the mosaic of India how and why should this institution be kept aloof from mainstream?
    This as has happened is the best way for ‘people’s representatives’ to fill their pockets undermining national security and incredibly allowing them to run into bomb shelters when terror comes knowing the professional soldier will die to protect them. How can sharp intellect and steel nerves accept such situation.

    • The historical reason for the Indian military feeling and acting subdued with the political class is because of the army’s colonial antecedents as a mercenary force that helped the British obtain the Raj and then sustain it. 1920s onwards, leaders of the freedom movement repeatedly talked of the army as an oppressive force doing the foreigner’s bidding. The Indians who joined the army before freedom were imbued with nationalistic feelings as well. Combine the feelings of guilt and the awe for the freedom movement leaders and the stage was set for bringing the army down a peg or two. Ayub Khan’s throwing his weight about in Pakistan from early on (in the 1950s) and formally taking over power in 1958 injected fears of coup, compounding the mixed feelings in the political class about the army. Hence its relative position vis a vis civilian ranks were progressively lowered in the Order of Precedence, and the military was hamstrung by rules and regulations that consoildated their subservience. And a particular example was made of Thimayya — who in the 50s had gained respect in society. Def minister Krishna Menon propagated whispers about a Thimayya coup, etc, whereupon Timmy resigned his office. But he was persuaded by Nehru to join back, which fact Nehru used to further denigrate Thimayya in Parliament! A much-reduced was never the same again, nor was the army in terms of maintaining its self-respect. In all these shenanigans, the babus did their bit to stoke suspicion and fear of the army, and to benefit from the consequent raising of their own posts in govt. Honestly, there have been only two outstanding COASs — thimayya before retirement, and Sundarji in the 80s. Most officers who make it to COAS are a self-satisfied lot and enjoy the perks and privileges during service and after retirement. VK Singh was the first one who tried to clean the accumulated muck in the augean stables, and got his comeuppance.

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