The best way to describe General V K Singh’s, most recent outburst is through an old Hindi adage – “Vinaash Kale, Vipreet Buddhi”. Literally translated this means that during the time of our destruction, we go against even our own intelligence. Why else would a highly decorated officer, who became the chief of the world’s largest standing army and someone who had an unblemished tenure, write to the Prime Minister that national security is at risk because of obsolete technology and the lack of ammunition for tanks? Is it all a coincidence that these matters are coming to the fore a few days after General Singh made outrageous statements that he was offered a bribe to approve the purchase of sub-standard defence equipment? Heads are turning not because of the content of the revelations, but because of their timing
General Singh has around eight weeks of remaining service. The purported offer to approve the purchase of sub-standard trucks was made over a year ago. It’s only been six weeks since the Supreme Court buried the hatchet on General Singh’s age row controversy with the Government stating that it didn’t question Singh’s integrity and had full faith and confidence in him. Singh believed this restored the honour and integrity he was fighting for and withdrew his petition. But like on previous occasions where Singh accepted not to raise issues again only to re-agitate them later, a few weeks after the Courts decision, Singh reportedly stated that he was disappointed with the verdict and believed the Court had “not effectively” closed the age row issue. And if being the first serving army chief to file a case against the Government wasn’t evidence enough of the less than cordial relations between the defence ministry and him, shortly after the Court’s verdict General Singh was dousing another controversy over the alleged tapping by the army of sensitive phone lines in the Capital. At the time, Singh’s defence was that people were trying to malign him because of the steps he had taken to check corruption. This drama was followed by his letter to the defence ministry and subsequently to the Prime Minister on the state of artillery and air defence in India being alarming.
All of the above happened in a short period of time, but a few weeks ago. As someone who sympathised with General Singh on the age row issue, today one wonders if the army chief was waiting for a trigger event to launch his recent onslaught? Was he preparing for combat by working on his defence strategy on how best to deal with the ambush that is bound to follow after his revelations? Had he won the age row dispute, would he still have disclosed the bribe that was allegedly offered to him? Had his service been extended by one year would Singh still have highlighted the deficiencies in our defence preparedness? If Singh indeed did not make a written complaint about the alleged bribe then what were his motivations for not doing so? If there is indeed a tape recording of the incident where Singh was offered the bribe, then was it common practice for Singh to record all meetings with ex-servicemen? If Singh did tell the defence ministry in September 2010 that he did not want to pursue the matter, but today claims that he has a lot of evidence which will emerge soon, then why was he withholding it? If the General is indeed desirous of cleansing the system, will he today make a written complaint to the CBI naming the lobbyist who supposedly approached him or will he prefer to withhold the identity of the alleged bribe giver? Are the recent actions of the army chief a case where an officer, at the end of his career, has no fear to stir up the system with sole objective to improve it? Or is it really a case of a soldier not being able to accept defeat and thus acting retaliatory?
The above may perhaps never get answered. But the recent finger pointing draws attention back to the deficiencies in our defence procurement system. After a series of scandals, various committees recommended the need for clear guidelines and consequently a robust defence procurement policy was prepared. Middle men were sought to be eliminated, but over the years they may have found loopholes in the existing policies. With India importing nearly 70% of its defence requirements it maybe time to once again over-haul the defence procurement process Consideration needs to be given to develop the indigenous defence industry, whether by encouraging domestic private players to participate or by increasing FDI in the sector.
Attention has once again also got drawn to lobbying practices in India. Organized lobbying is still at a nascent stage in India and is entirely unregulated. But lobbying is not an illegal activity and is not banned. Thus, recognition needs to be given that its not lobbying that is the problem. It’s the lack of transparency, regulation and inability to monitor lobbying activities that is the problem. It would help if lobbyists were required to register themselves and share whose interests they represent, what issues they champion and who in the government departments they interact with.
Steering back to General Singh’s outbursts, with his retirement round the corner he will be leaving office embroiled in many controversies, as a potential witness in a CBI inquiry and as someone who enlarged the rift between the civilian and military establishments. People’s memories are short-lived and V K Singh will soon slip into oblivion. But the nation will remember the soldier as someone who didn’t beat the retreat very graciously. If only he had paid heed to the Supreme Courts suggestions that wise people are those who move with the wind!
Satvik Varma is an advocate & founder of Independent Law Chambers in New Delhi.
First Published in The Economic Times on March 29th, 2012