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That Singh king feeling
General Vijay Kumar Singh always does the unexpected, boldly and brashly, as is the way of commandos, without apparently caring a fig for the consequences. Or, so it seems from the way he has kept the government, as well a strong lobby working against him within the 1. 13-million strong Army, off-balance for the better part of a year now.
It may have begun with a discrepancy over his date of birth within two wings of the Army, a minor matter that could have been amicably resolved with political tact, but which swiftly snowballed into a raging factional feud within the force and sharpened the civil-military divide like never before. So much so that routine Army exercises are now interpreted in some quarters as a show of strength by a "frustrated" Gen Singh, with even the government getting slightly "spooked", albeit briefly, on a cold, foggy night in mid-January over military movements towards the Capital.
Detractors of Gen Singh, a highly religious man who fasts at least twice a week, say he has a strong puritanical, self-righteous streak that extends to considering himself the only honest guy in town. The Army chief, in fact, even filed an FIR against a television journalist for reporting that he was actually born in 1949, not 1951 as he was claiming, or 1950 as the defence ministry had proclaimed.
"He went after former Army chief Gen Deepak Kapoor's men with a vengeance. He favours Rajput officers, has his own dirty tricks department led by a serving colonel, and wants his own line of succession in the Army. Acting like a bull in a china shop is no way to reform the system, " says a critic.
"Utter hogwash, " counter Gen Singh's supporters. There is a close coterie of a dozen serving and retired officers, some from his Birla Public School days in Pilani, along with elder daughter Mrinalini Singh, advising him on a daily basis on what he should do next.
Gen Singh, they say, is being targeted because he had the gumption to take on the hidden agendas of the arms lobbies and wheelers-dealers that have made alarming inroads into the corridors of power in South Block. Gen Singh, incidentally, had never really served in the Army HQ or South Block during his long career in field formations, except as a lowly Lt-Colonel in the military operations directorate, before he became the chief.
No one could have foretold matters would deteriorate to such an extent when Gen Singh, a thirdgeneration officer of the Rajput Regiment who wears his Commando and US Ranger badges with immense pride, took over the Army reins on March 31, 2010. Finally, it was thought, a professional, no-nonsense, incorruptible soldier had come to the fore in the world's second-largest standing army, which was grappling with a series of land, cereal, meat, liquor and arms scandals as well as a completely skewed teeth-to-tail combat ratio.
Gen Singh, who had topped both the gruelling commando course at the Infantry School in Mhow and the Rangers combat-leadership programme at Fort Benning in the US as a subaltern, certainly promised to deliver. For one, he promised to improve the "internal health" of the once-pristine force, which had been corroded by corruption. Soon enough, he began to crack down on Sukna, Adarsh and other scams. For another, he vowed to "transform" the Army into a lean, mean fighting machine capable of effectively handling challenges on the two-and-a-half fronts - China, Pakistan and insurgency - confronting the nation.
But somewhere along the way, he lost his focus. His single-minded determination to get his birth year "corrected" to 1951 and by extension, get a further 10 months in office, turned into a battle of personal integrity and honour that ultimately led him to become the first serving military chief to drag the government to court. This tussle pushed everything else to the background.
He believed he had been wronged by the system, victimised by his earlier bosses Gens J J Singh and Deepak Kapoor who had a "hidden agenda" to ensure a particular line of succession be put in place, without an honest hearing. But then, if it was a fight for principles, why did he not stand his ground when the issue first cropped up in 2006? Instead, he quietly gave written commitments that he would adhere to 1950 as his year of birth while being considered for promotions as a corps commander, then an army commander and finally the chief itself.
Once he became the chief, he lobbed the 1951 bomb at the government. Even if Gen Singh's intentions are not doubted, his timing remains highly suspect. It was only after the Supreme Court in February threw out his contentions about his actual age that the allegations started tumbling out of the closet - charges and counter-charges of bribe-offers and arms agents, bids to discredit future chiefs-in-themaking, succession plots, operational gaps and finally government inaction.
A confidential letter written by the Army chief to the PM, asking for "suitable directions to enhance the Army's preparedness", also found its way into the public domain. Defence minister A K Antony, who had earlier stood in the way of a growing clamour within the government for Gen Singh's head, was embarrassed like never before. A huge trust deficit erupted between Antony and Gen Singh, both ironically regarded as being squeaky clean.
Many young, gung-ho military officers, however, laud Gen Singh's onslaught against the neta-babu nexus, which has assiduously worked to slight the armed forces over the decades. "Civilian control has come to mean bureaucratic rather than political control. Finally, someone is hitting back, " says a colonel.
Will all this jolt the Indian government into seriously reforming higher defence management? Or will the blowback from the politico-bureaucratic combine further undermine the standing of the armed forces in national security affairs? There are no clear answers yet. But Gen Singh's tenure will long be remembered for the many unseemly controversies it triggered.
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