The barracks’ doors have always remained firmly bolted when our political worthies have popped around sensing an opportunity to put their oar in. Now with the age of the army chief General VK Singh having become a national issue, a small chink has appeared in the door. To use that unfortunate term, the issue has now snowballed into a stand-off between the civilian administration and the army chief, bringing the separation of military and State one degree closer.
What I cannot understand is how both sides have allowed this to become so public and so unpleasant. Defence minister AK Antony’s nervous titters don’t conceal the fact that the government is edgy about this and worried about the effect on the nation’s million-strong army. References to Gen Singh’s ethnic origins by opportunistic politicians do nothing to help.
As I see it, the government of the day could have called Gen Singh and said, ‘Look here old boy, your documents from your army training shows that you were born in a particular year, end of story, see when you are in the neighbourhood next.’ As for Gen Singh, the end of a distinguished career should have seen him bow to the wishes of the government and exhibit a certain graciousness. But no, the two have been at each other’s throats like Kilkenny cats on the issue of whether the date of birth was 1950 or 1951. The Gen says it is a matter of honour, not that of promotions. Come now, pull the other one, there is no honour in this sort of wrangling when you are on top of the heap.
As for the notoriously inarticulate AK Antony, I cannot think of a worse choice to bat on the government’s behalf. Well, now the tanks have rolled into the Supreme Court where we can expect the artillery to open up. And to think that as Indians, we have got accustomed to pointing fingers at our friendly neighbour across the border where the military staring down the civilian administration is now de rigeur. In fact, even as I speak, the army chief Ashfaq Kayani and the civilian prime minister Yousaf Raza Gilani are at loggerheads. And of course, there was the famous General Pervez Musharraf-Nawaz Sharif collision and the General Zia-ZA Bhutto one. I could go on.
But, it has not been that relations between the civilian government and the military here have been a bed of roses either in the past. It is just that it has always been handled with subtle finesse. Well before he became the hero of the Bangladesh war in 1971, Indira Gandhi, always a little paranoid, was convinced by her courtiers that army chief Sam Maneckshaw was planning a coup against her. The imperious Indira apparently asked the famed soldier straight up when he planned to take over. When he said he had no such intention, she mentioned that her loyalists had told her of this and apparently asked what she should do. His response was “You mind your business, I mind mine. You kiss your own sweetheart, I kiss mine,” quoting from a nursery rhyme he learnt from his daughter. And then he said, “I do not interfere with politics and politicians.”
Mind you, we are getting to know all about this much later. It is not as though the two decided to let it all hang out then. Similarly, the patrician Nehru and army chief Thimayya had a falling out at the behest of Krishna Menon but neither side rushed to the pulpit to declare their differences.
Already, there are many trying to suggest that Gen Singh is being made a victim of those whom he displeased on his way to the top. However this gets resolved, I am certain that a number of conspiracy theories will spring up around this. Which is not going to do anyone any good. If we want to be considered different from our rambunctious neighbour, then we have to behave that way. Let me assume that for one minute, it will all be legally sorted out and Gen Singh will fold his tent and retire to cultivate roses. What is to stop another top army official from thinking that he can sort out his issues, whatsoever they may be, by making these public. Will the government leap into the fray each time and assert its supremacy? Or will the matter have to go to court while the world watches the largest democracy, as it is now, fighting over a gentleman’s age?
I can only lament how juvenile this whole thing is looking now however it pans out. I can only hope that the chink in the door is firmly shut and not widened further by the self-seekers who have made this small skirmish in an alley into a battle involving the whole country. There certainly will be no victors in this one when the last verbal bullet is fired.