Book Review: General V.K. Singh with Kunal Verma, Courage and Conviction: An Autobiography [New Delhi: Aleph Book Co., 2013], 364 pages.
Published in ‘India Today’, December 18, 2013
Jawaharlal Nehru with great perspicacity noted in 1948 that accepting the criterion of seniority-cum-merit in military promotions would quickly lead to seniority elbowing out merit. Alas, Nehru’s thinking didn’t take root. India, as a consequence, has suffered from its armed services being time and again hoist with Chiefs of Staff of indifferent quality.
It is seniority in service marked by the birthdate, and it’s manipulation by motivated seniors, which was at the heart of the “look down” policy initiated by the army chief General J.J. Singh in 2005, and pushed by his successor Deepak Kapoor, that led to the concept alien to the Indian Army of a “planned line of succession” victimizing General Vijay Kumar Singh. In his autobiography, one would have expected Singh to rant against those who did him in. Surprisingly, his memoir is free of bile and vituperation. He pleads his case, of course, but soberly about the age-issue ending up unfairly truncating his tenure as COAS. Singh doesn’t, however, explain why, after asking the Courts to decide whether the school-leaving certificate kept by the Adjutant-General’s Office is, as statutorily mandated, the decisive proof of an officer’s birthdate, and not some document in the Military Secretary’s keeping, he accepted a mere wordy salve for his honour as restitution, thereby upending his principled stand.
Many autobiographies are unreadable because much is sought to be made out of little. General Singh’s book, however, is a genuinely good read, perhaps because the bulk of it is an engaging account of army activity in peacetime, near-wars, and in war (Bangladesh, IPKF operations, ‘Blue Star’, Kargil, Op Parakram) as seen from a fighting unit (2 Rajput)’s unique perspective. Among other things, it details a series of snafus and fiascos of one kind or another, such as operations (IPKF, Blue Star) being mounted without updated maps; differentiates commanders who trusted their instincts, were respectful of the regimental tartib, earned the loyalty of the jawan, and gained success, and others who were sticklers for procedure and hindered operational outcomes. It also reveals the high cost imposed on the soldiery by blustery show-offs (K. Sundarji) and shrinking violets (Arun Vaidya), who as chiefs landed the army in heaps of trouble (IPKF & Blue Star, and Blue Star, respectively).
The writing, always easy, is informative about army life, often turning insightful and, because relayed with a straight face, even hilarious. Thus, a salt-of-the-earth jawan, for instance, after a briefing on “fear” and “panic”, explained the difference to Singh thus: the former is “dar” felt naturally by anyone going into action, and the latter is something senior officers feel in similar circumstances! Or, his exchange with officers of an armoured regiment whose use of flamboyant terms seem detached from their practical import. Requested by Singh, as Commander II Corps, to explain during a sand model exercise what the term “bouncing an obstacle” actually meant, the CO replied: “Err…sir, we’ll bounce them”. Asked to clarify this remark, a squadron commander added helpfully, “Umm, bounce, sir, means we’ll bounce them…”!
The General reserves his regrets for the widespread deterioration of morals leading to scams and scandals in the military, and his pith for the IAS (and Defence Finance) officials who, as in the rest of the government, routinely gum up the works in the Ministry of Defence (MOD). The Defence Minister, he charges, is worked over by the babus in the manner master puppeteers do the rag dolls they handle, exploiting the latter’s pet-peeves (in the case of A.K. Antony, corruption!) to stymie military demands and initiatives. More significantly, Singh rips the cover off “the greatest con” job perpetrated every year by the MOD officialdom on behalf of the government. It relates to the prevention by procedural means of the large capital defence budgets from being actually spent by the military because the unused monies are required to fund the wasteful, corruption-promoting, but vote-getting populist schemes (NREGS, food and energy subsidies).