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Our harmed forces

Over the past two weeks I have had to field several calls from Pakistani TV channels seeking a comment on what they see as “provocative” statements made by the army chief,General Deepak Kapoor. I give them all one short answer: this is an Indian general thinking aloud,expressing personal views at a semi-academic discussion. The problem […]

Written by Shekhar Gupta |
January 16, 2010 2:12:19 am

Over the past two weeks I have had to field several calls from Pakistani TV channels seeking a comment on what they see as “provocative” statements made by the army chief,General Deepak Kapoor. I give them all one short answer: this is an Indian general thinking aloud,expressing personal views at a semi-academic discussion. The problem is,you are responding as Pakistanis listening to a general. You forget that he is an Indian general,not Pakistani.

The implication is,in one fundamental sense we do not take our generals as seriously as the Pakistanis do because,howsoever radical their views,we know that they do not control larger strategic policy. But,in another fundamental sense,while we do not at all fear our generals,we respect and love them more — and that is also partly because we have no concerns over their indulging in extra-constitutional adventurism or mischief,ever. That is something India and its armed forces are so proud of. And that is why the current spectacle of the army chief answering a hall full of sceptical journalists’ questions not so much about soldiering or strategy as about sleaze and scandal is so unfortunate. In fact it is doubly unfortunate that it had to happen in his Army Day-eve press conference,and India woke up to headlines of a land ‘scam’ at the top in the army just when it was displaying its best in ceremonial parades around the country.

I know too little about the so-called land scam in Sukna cantonment (near 33 Corps HQ) in Siliguri to have a view on it. But what I can say without any hesitation is that our system’s — the army and political leadership’s — inability to come clear on this early enough has caused enormous damage to the fair name of what still is our finest national institution.

You never want to see your military brass on the defensive,whether facing the enemy,or your own media. But that’s how they have been now for several years. Either on the defensive,or complaining,even whining. Sadly,so un-soldierlike. When was the last time you saw a general — and I use the words “army” and “general” generically,including all three forces and their commanding ranks — talk either grand strategy,modernisation,or unveil a vision for the military? You could go right back to the mid-’80s and may discover that the last time you heard such genuinely military talk was when General Sundarji took over and,by a happy coincidence we had already,in Admiral Tahiliani,a visionary chief of the navy. The air force then had many combat veterans of the 1965-71 vintage at top levels and together the three forces inducted new weapon systems,wrote new doctrines and built confidence,morale and,above all,the sense of dash,adventure and excitement that attracts the finest young people to join the forces.

In recent years,on the other hand,you have seen the top brass complaining in public about pay commission injustices — which were mostly justified complaints — or about other assorted un-soldierlike inanities or,now,land scams. Frankly,the last time I saw an Indian soldier talk like a soldier was when General Padmanabhan talked to the media at the peak of tension during Operation Parakram.

If,over these past two decades,the armed forces have begun to look — and sound — like just any other “department” of the government,the fault lies with their own leadership,the civil servants who “control” them,and mostly with the politicians who lead them. Grievances over the pay commission should never have been allowed to fester and the political leadership should not have waited till the brass — led by the then navy chief,Admiral Sureesh Mehta — had begun washing that dirty linen in public. If you ask them,they will tell you they had good reason to do so,and if they hadn’t,obvious,hurtful injustices would not have been reversed. I disagreed with their method,but in substance they are mostly right.

But why did the political leadership let it drift? The last thing you want to do is distract your soldiers by open,bureaucratic-style spats,or force them to take their grievances public,like any other exploited section of our society. Nobody moved in time to comfort them,to even give them cover when ex-servicemen took the grievances public. The generals,not clever enough — and not expected to be so — to fight a war through the media,were hung out to dry by the political leadership while the bureaucracy quietly sniggered on the sidelines.

This is exactly what is happening now with the Sukna “scandal”. This is just the kind of situation where the defence minister,secretary,somebody should have taken charge and convinced the nation that its army and its defence ministry had the institutional strength,ethos and a strong enough ethical foundation to deal with the issue rather than,once again,leaving it to the chief himself. India has had a healthy tradition of keeping the institution of the chief above public controversy. Even when problems arose,these were sorted out internally,without making an ugly public spectacle,except in the Krishna Menon phase of skulduggery which lost us the 1962 war. We have forgotten that. But the larger state of our armed forces has begun to resemble 1962.

Of course,some of the more garrulous recent chiefs have not helped. But where is the political leadership? Missing in action? I am sorry if that sounds like a cheap shot. But what is one to say when this country has had such uninspiring political leadership for its armed forces for so long,starting with George Fernandes who saw himself as more a senapati by himself and Siachen Glacier as his only charge — and a permanent photo-op. Or now A.K. Antony under whose leadership the brass has got caught in ugly public situations twice already,over the pay commission and Sukna. Or,under whom almost all major acquisitions have got delayed by half to a full decade.

And these are things we need desperately,desperately: new guns for an artillery which has not ordered one since 1987,air-defence missiles without which the navy’s newest,finest capital assets are left naked to air attacks,new fighters for an air force which is down to 32 squadrons from 45. The defence minister’s,and probably even the UPA’s,primary objective is to complete yet another tenure without any arms purchase scandal. That is why the tiniest whiff of a controversy leads to cancellation of trials and even tenders. If you are as old as I am,or a pucca cricket enthusiast,you will know Bapu Nadkarni,an all-rounder who became famous setting a record with his gentle left-arm spin that will now never be broken: 29 overs,26 maidens,and no wickets for three runs. Even when he batted,he scored at a somewhat similar pace. Perhaps in the spirit of those times for Indian cricket,he always played for a draw. Antony has now become the Bapu Nadkarni of Indian politics,and certainly so in his tenure as Raksha Mantri. It is causing a drift,jeopardising India’s military strength and,institutionally,undermining the armed forces.

Our serving generals will never question the political leadership. But deep down when they see their leaders waffle,play safe and distant,it feeds right into their soldiers’ disdain for the lazy,cowardly civilian. And then they begin to make mistakes. We still have one of the finest,most loyal,disciplined armies in the world,willing to follow its orders and,most important of all,take casualties. They deserve better leadership,both from within,and definitely from the political class.

sg@expressindia.com

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