Army in doldrums


After a rough-hewn career in the field, politics should be pursued by soldiers as an avocation, not a vocation that the workaday politicians have made it

The Army has been in the news for a few years now not always for the right reasons. The succession trauma that saw Gen. Bikram Singh replacing V.K. Singh will be stretched out some more with Lt. Gen. Ravi Dastane, deputy chief of the Integrated Defence Staff, deciding to take the matter of the elevation of Lt. Gen. Dalbir Singh Suhag as the Eastern Army commander to the Armed Forces Tribunal.

Like the V.K. Singh episode, this one too can be expected to land up in the Supreme Court docket. While V.K. Singh, for reasons unclear, was satisfied with the Supreme Court merely “restoring his honour” rather than pronouncing on the larger principle at stake and which he went to the court for — which was that whether or not for career management purposes records of serving officers with the Adjutant General’s Office are paramount. It truncated his tenure as Army Chief without establishing the principle. But the Lt. Gen. Suhag promotion has prompted Lt. Gen. Dastane, who may insist on the Supreme Court being specific about promotion rules and criteria.
Worse, with V.K. Singh on the cusp of entering “politics” full-time, an unnecessary debate has been spurred about the propriety of retired military men entering the soiled political arena. Some veterans — with a lifetime’s habit of staying away from politics — have harrumphed that this is a bad precedent to set. Some fairly ludicrous suggestions have been floated by media commentators, among these that he should give up his rank. India is a bona fide democracy, not a banana republic as a bumptious bottom-feeder from the Congress Party president Sonia Gandhi’s household had the temerity to call the country. The Indian Army, moreover, is a volunteer citizen force of enormous historical weight, not some rag-tag group that is anybody’s plaything. As a citizen military, moreover, the regret is not that V.K. Singh seeks entry into the political ranks, but rather that more generals and colonels and majors are not already in politics.

The country needs more citizens with a military background in Parliament, not fewer. And after a rough-hewn career in the field, politics should be pursued by soldiers as an avocation, not a vocation that the workaday politicians have made it. Indeed, the bulk of persons with a military background have fared well in Parliament and in state legislatures. People like Jaswant Singh, former major, Central India Horse, and a foreign minister displaying diplomatic verve and finesse during the BJP coalition government, and Maj. Gen. B.C. Khanduri (Retd), an Army engineer, who as chief minister hauled Uttarakhand out of the pits, are role models. Generals in democratic politics have been an honourable station since the age of Pericles, who commanded two campaigns against Sparta in the Peloponnesian Wars and was freely elected by the Athenian people to lead their government twice.
If the Army has had a hard time of it in terms of controversy attending on leadership transitions at the highest levels, it has not been lucky in terms of augmenting its capabilities either. Leave alone not getting an offensive mountain corps, the very concept was gutted by defence minister A.K. Antony, who is proving to be one of the great mishaps the military has run into. He has both conspicuously failed in his one-point agenda to remove the taint of corruption, and with his risk-averse attitude has actually compounded the problem with decisions being delayed, or, when taken, having been controversial. He started with zero aptitude — and not being a quick study on issues alien to him — has not graduated over the years in office beyond the kindergarten-level in terms of understanding national security-related issues. Nor has he developed an instinct for making correct decisions. Worse, he has introduced the give and take of politics into military choices by configuring a grand bargain that saw him approve a full-fledged combat aviation arm for the Army in the face of severe resistance from the Air Force and then, to placate Vayu Bhavan, mooted a “joint solution” that the Army has been enjoined to work out with IAF, entailing the formal burial of the offensive mountain corps concept, because of the IAF’s belief that it can unleash its aircraft for punitive strikes against the Chinese Army in Tibet, and that this is enough to deter the hard-headed men running the People’s Liberation Army (PLA).

It puts one in mind of the joint air-land exercise put up by the 4th Infantry Division in Ambala in 1958 to over-awe the visiting Chinese military delegation headed by the PLA commander in Tibet. Screaming Hunter aircraft overhead in ground attack mode, dropped bombs, made repeated strafing runs and cleared the path for advancing infantry — all of which impressed the Chinese commander not a whit. “This is all very impressive,” the Chinese commander is reported as telling his Indian counterpart commanding the 4th Division, Maj. Gen. B.M. Kaul, “but, tell me, will you have the aircraft in a real war?” The PLA general got his answer three years later with the 7th Brigade of Kaul’s own 4th Division being decimated on the Namka Chu river at a time when Kaul himself was appointed commander of IV Corps created overnight for him by his distant uncle, Jawaharlal Nehru, the Prime Minister’s complaisant defence minister V.K. Krishna Menon and an “obedient” Army Chief, Gen. Pran Nath Thapar. All this happened, it must be remembered, as the IAF remained inert throughout the war.

Going by his recollections of his career, the IAF Chief in 1962, Air Marshal A.M. Engineer, did not push for the Air Force to go into action. Maybe, like his more recent successors, he too subsided in his belief that air action is inherently escalatory. What’s the guarantee that IAF won’t again escape, doing nothing in another showdown in the Himalayas? And then, the Army bereft of any real offensive capability that would have won the PLA’s respect, will be compelled to merely defend. We know where that will get the Army — another ignominious end.

[Published November 9, 2012 as “Parliament needs more ex-Generals” in the ‘Asian Age’ at and the ‘Deccan Chronicle’.]

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 Asian geopolitics, China, China military, civil-military relations, India's China Policy, India's strategic thinking and policy, Indian Air Force, Indian Army, Indian Politics. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Army in doldrums

  1. Shaurya says:

    Please do not break my heart. Tell us the MSC plan is still on…

    • Well, formally, as in FORMALLY, no. But the nature of the offensive MTC is being folded into the two Divs under raising, with a larger role for AF.

      • Lt Col Sudhir Kumar Bedi SM (Retd) says:

        Firstly : When the people at large say that there should be Army Rule / governance by Army people, it is because they are frustrated with turmoil, in -senstivity to day to day issues caused by corruption in ranks and files of the govt;;;;;; and therefore they are looking forward to more competent,disciplined and humane people to look after the affairs of governance ie a Soldier…. who says politics is all dishonesty ….. the Indian politicians and bureaucrats have made it so to meet their own ends but it actually requires honesty of purpose …. though negotiations and manoeuvres are inherent but the end result / objective has to be correct. Thus whether it VK or Anna , they are very much within their rights to be in politics to deliver to the public and nation; what is the need of the hour …. wish them well
        Secondly : Battling within the services is perennial…. to an extent that infighting has resulted into degradation in status / monetary benefits and also in the effectiveness of the war machinery. Air Force is a neutralizing and extended arm. It is for strategic bombing and achieving tactical superiority in the battlefield. Its so simple to understand that tactical battles need flexible / immediate./ tailor made support and to achieve that the formations should have integral air arm….. why should IAF try to stake its claim…. their rank and file has different orientation…. I have seen it personally ; IAF personnel taking up matters as to why they should stay in an air maintained picket for more than seven days……the dal and chapati of a army soldier is not palatable to them…… Let Army have its own air arm to stall / rebutt surprise and deliberate attacks of tanks / formations etc etc….it was possible for Airforce to respond at Longewala or…. but it may not happen every where…. In 1971 napalm bombs / rockets / were dropped at Khansama…. as youngster, who was hearing the support plan for the battle and which included IAF; I felt it would be cake walk to the objective; but to my dismay I found not a dent was made to the defence works and the sorties did not contribute in neutralizing enemy fire….. It was when complete air supremacy prevailed… Oh yes while tactical Army Avn is operating e IAF should maintain local supremacy in the tactical battle area….

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