If a Martian wanted to find out one fundamental difference between India and Pakistan, all he would need to do is pick up the paper and look at yesterday’s two top stories both involving army chiefs of the two countries. Pakistan first. While the latest turn of events has pitted Pakistan’s civilian government — itself a giveaway term that suggests that there could be any other kind of government in that country — against its judiciary, the real wrangle is between President Asif Ali Zardari and the Pakistani army led by Ashfaq Kayani.
In ‘better’ times, General Kayani would have been able to conduct a coup and get things back in order, if only for a while. This time, however, in a scenario where the army is livid at Mr Zardari for secretly passing on a memo to the American administration seeking protection against an, um, army coup, as well busy facing off hordes of Islamicist extremists, the Pakistani military is in the news for less capable reasons.
In contrast, the news that the Indian army chief is making across the border has little to do with a genuine, institutional stand-off with the government — yes, the only one India ever had was the civilian government. It’s about General VK Singh insisting that he’s a year younger than the government believes he is. He has now gone to court over what is a human resource quarrel about whether he should stay on as Chief of Army Staff for another year or not. Despite what army canteen rum-drinkers insist about the issue signalling a breakdown in the Indian Army-government relations, this isn’t what one may call the stuff of constitutional crises.
So in a snapshot, one can get the relationship that both ‘democracies’ have with their armed forces. If the Pakistani example triggers a nostalgia for the army’s ability to become the (strict) adults necessary when the children are making a mess of things, the Indian example shows that the army has a more specialised role in the country. And that this birth certificate imbroglio is just a sideshow worthy of bureaucrats.