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Cease fire

SC signal is clear: govt must find a way out of its bruising confrontation over the army chief’s age

Written by The Indian Express | Published: February 4, 2012 3:25:12 am

SC signal is clear: govt must find a way out of its bruising confrontation over the army chief’s age

With the Supreme Court criticising the defence ministry’s handling of confusion over the army chief’s date of birth,the Central government must consider ways in which the issue can be pulled back from the brink — not just to cut its political losses in this instance,but to take the confrontational edge off the interface between the defence ministry and army leadership. Indeed,the court has given the government a week’s space to get a grip on the issue. To do so,the government needs to stop being on the defensive,and begin finding a solution.

The Supreme Court on Friday gave the government the option of reconsidering its order of December 30,2011,on the army chief,General V.K. Singh’s statutory complaint against an earlier defence ministry determination that his date of birth was May 10,1950,and not 1951. The December order reiterated the July 2011 one,saying his year of birth would be taken to be 1950. (Were this to remain the case,the general would retire this year — if not,he could have another year in the office,thereby changing the line of succession in the army.) The court observed that the manner in which Singh’s statutory complaint was rejected “appears to be vitiated”. The next hearing in the case is scheduled for February 10,and the government must quickly rid this episode of the appearance of a scuffle. Even after this spectacle has played out in the public domain for months,it is difficult to comprehend how the uncertainty about the army chief’s date of birth lingered so long. It is true that the seeds of the confusion were sown within the army’s bureaucracy — but since 2006 when the defence ministry flagged off the discrepancy in his records,the issue has festered on account of shabby follow-up.

It is time the government stopped seeing the case in terms of a purely legal brief. The political risk in persisting with a stated position in court,come what may,was made obvious in the UPA government’s rigidity on appointing P.J. Thomas as CVC. However,the government and the army chief should bear in mind the bruises from the current case would not just be political,they could have long-lasting implications for the army. Neither can afford to be on the wrong side of history. The government must strike an enlightened path to get out of this impasse. Statecraft ultimately hinges on the art of persuasion — this crisis calls on the government to persuade public opinion that,given the circumstances,its next step will be in the larger interest.

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