The 24th Chief

He will count for no more than a footnote,albeit a sizeable,sad but unforgettable one,as his successors pick up the pieces

Written by Shekhar Gupta | Published: June 2, 2012 12:09 am

He will count for no more than a footnote,albeit a sizeable,sad but unforgettable one,as his successors pick up the pieces

Operationally,this has been a particularly peaceful period for the army. In some ways,in fact,you could describe it as our longest period of peace. The ceasefire on the Line of Control has held for a decade. The Northeast has remained quiet. Kashmir has seen a sharp and welcome decline in combat,a real success story. Until today this year,the army has not lost even one life. The good news is re-confirmed by the fact that even the other uniformed forces,paramilitary and state police,have lost just two. Even the preceding years have seen a sharp — and very welcome — dip in armed forces’ casualties.

So why does the army seem to be under such strain,in such an embattled state of mind as its 25th Indian chief,General Bikram Singh,takes over? Or rather,he could,while he reflects on the joys and stresses of his new charge,ask what did he do to deserve the command of an institution under such strain. His predecessor has gone out in a blaze of controversy and his likely successor is trapped in one,at least temporarily. Many of his army commanders are not talking to each other. His intelligence corps faces a hundred questions about itself. His army is in fine fettle at the fighting-unit level. But the rank and file,who have all read the recent leaks,are worrying about just how inadequately equipped they might be to fight a war in the near future. The relationship between Army Headquarters and the Ministry of Defence (MoD) has for months been frosty — to put it mildly. And he himself may end up investing more time and mind-space than anybody with as demanding a job as his would wish to,in dealing with PILs against himself in the Supreme Court as well as J&K High Court.

But big boys do not waste time fretting over a question like: What did I do to deserve this? And the chief of staff of the finest volunteer army in the world is not a job for ordinary men. It takes a remarkable man nearly four decades of tough service,many wars and skirmishes,courses,examinations — and all of it in a brutally competitive environment with formidable peers — to get to the top. You don’t get this job because your uncle,howsoever powerful,wishes for you to have it. It takes some talent,determination,diligence,timing and a bit of luck to emerge as first among equals in a peer group as extraordinary as the seven army commanders in India.

Bikram Singh is finally where every Indian soldier wishes to be. And not because someone helped him along unfairly. He has done at least three tours of duty in Kashmir,three with the UN,and has also stopped a bullet in his belly in Anantnag,spending three months in hospital. What is a little bit of intrigue and old-fashioned sniping now,whether factional or legal? He can take it in his stride.

Questions have to be asked elsewhere,though. Defence Minister A.K. Antony has now spoken out with uncharacteristic candour,asking the brass to make a fresh start without the bitterness or baggage of the past six months or so. But he,and the political leadership,need to ask themselves if they handled this unprecedented challenge as well as they needed to. One way of looking at this,if you were to take a charitable view of the government,would be,see,how a skilled,old-school politician employed enormous reserves of patience to wait out the incumbent,questioning or arguing only where unavoidable — actually,only in the Supreme Court. But a more realistic reading is that the political establishment responded to the challenge posed by the outgoing chief by offering the other cheek. Or rather,to stretch the metaphor,two other cheeks,represented by Bikram Singh and Dalbir Singh,the next two in the line of succession,at least by seniority. It is too early to say if history would see this as deft management of an explosive situation until a peaceful transition took place in the army or the supine response of a weak government to a brazen challenge to its authority.

It would be tragic if the political leadership now chooses to sit back smugly,leaving the new chief to close ranks. Much wrong has happened,or is believed to have happened,for the government to quietly turn the page and move on. All the stories,charges and counter-charges of internecine covert operations,vicious intrigue,misuse of intelligence resources,illegal phone tapping and so on must be impartially and fairly investigated and anybody found guilty should be held accountable. You cannot treat an institution as vital and loved as the army as if it were another PSU,with its factions,divisions,casteism,sectarianism,communalism,back-stabbing,vicious scuttlebutt and withering litigiousness.

Finally,a word also about the outgoing chief. Nothing here is spoken in irritation just because,in his many TV interviews last week,he attacked this newspaper and described its editor as “crazy”. He is not your shrink after all,so how does it matter what’s his diagnosis of your state of mind? And,of course,he has the full right to pillory us and our opinions in words of his choosing. But would he reflect on the state of the army he is leaving behind? Where,he said,rogue elements exist and one of whose seniormost commanders he described as “morally flawed”.

He stirred our collective imagination when he took charge promising to restore the “internal health” of the army (‘Need to look within,improve Army internal health: new chief V K Singh’,IE,April 2,2010,goo.gl/Lhhae). He got the most coveted and honoured job in India for two years and frittered away most of his time fighting to get another 10 months. And when a judge on the SC bench that overturned this quest of his reminded him that “wise men are those who move with the wind,” he hit back,saying he even regretted going to the court. That’s not all,he mocked the judge saying “if all of us are told to blow with the wind,then we will all become corrupt.” The chief,24th in a most illustrious pantheon of Indian army chiefs,would do well to reflect on what his great predecessors would have thought of the way he conducted himself. What would that bench have advised him,if it was manned by Generals K.S. Thimayya,S.H.F.J. Manekshaw and K. Sundarji instead? Each one of them lived by that classic definition of military leadership as enunciated by Omar Nelson Bradley,the legendary US general who commanded all US ground troops in World War II. “Leadership in a democratic army,” Bradley said,“means firmness,not harshness; understanding,not weakness; generosity,not selfishness; pride,not egotism.”

Indeed,it was this egotism that eroded the delicate civil-military relationship,created distrust of the kind never seen before. The army was riven by factionalism even more than in the 1960-62 period when Lieutenant General B.M. Kaul and Defence Minister V.K. Krishna Menon played their terrible games. Worst of all,the headquarters are bristling with suspicions and allegations of dirty tricks. And,indeed,there is now loads of litigation. Is that the legacy he wished to leave behind?

Unfortunately,in the history of this greatest of armies,its 24th chief will count for no more than a footnote,albeit a sizeable,sad but unforgettable one,as his successors pick up the pieces. But if he does seek an after-life in politics or in activist civil society or the public intellectual space,he could emerge as an interesting voice in the national discourse. And we will be listening — our eyes,ears and minds wide open.

He questioned our journalism,too,which is fair enough,considering that we also debate soldiering. He said this writer asked about the controversial troop movements on the nights of January 16 and 17 with him over lunch but did not report from that conversation (‘The January night Raisina Hill was spooked: Two key Army units moved towards Delhi without notifying Govt’,IE,April 4) and so what whether it was on the record or not,because,you know “with these journalists,for them there is nothing off the record”.

Just as the profession of soldiering has its principles — some enshrined in the Chetwode Code which former defence minister Jaswant Singh reminded the outgoing chief of in these columns on March 29 — so does journalism. One of these is,we never betray an off-record conversation. Never. Politicians,civil servants,diplomats,tycoons,whistleblowers and,indeed,professional soldiers have all shared some of their deepest confidences with this writer,secure in the knowledge that they will never be betrayed. That trust has to be earned over time in our business,it doesn’t work on rank.

It’s tempting to take the general’s statement to imply that it liberates me from the “off-record” limitations on my conversations with him. He can lift it for himself. But I am not sure he can do so for connected conversations between me and his close friends and family members who must be entitled to their confidentiality as well. Nevertheless,his point is noted. I will reflect on it.

Or,maybe,even take the cue from Sally Quinn,a star writer of The Washington Post’s ‘Style’ section,who said: “There is a saying in Washington that nothing is really off the record,and if a story is too good,it will eventually get out.”

sg@expressindia.com

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