No one has come out smelling of roses in these fisticuffs between chief of the army staff General VK Singh and the government. I can't help but feel bad for the next army chief who will be inheriting what is clearly a ghastly mess. The whole drama with Gen Singh as the main protagonist would have been amusing had it not been for the fact that someone, somewhere seems to be playing ducks and drakes with defence purchases and that we are surrounded by neighbours many of whom we would not exactly invite over for a drink.
So how does a sensitive letter written by the army chief to the prime minister surface so close to his exit from the forces? Was this mischief on the part of someone who wished to point the needle of suspicion towards Gen Singh? Or was this done with his knowledge in some sort of retribution for the fact that the government did not give in on his age issue? Either way, Gen Singh does come across as being churlish, directly or indirectly drying dirty linen in public.
Why, for instance, has Gen Singh left all his bluster about dodgy defence dealing for just a letter? Surely as army top cat, he could have — should have — taken action to set things right. He did not. Let's also assume for a moment that Gen Singh, thwarted by the government on the issue of his age, is firing in all directions. What is not in doubt is that he brought the issue of being offered a Rs 14 crore bribe to the notice of the defence minister with the proviso that he did not want to proceed on it.
Which doesn't make defence minister AK Antony look pretty either? He tells Gen Singh to look into it and tells him that bribe-givers must not be entertained. Quite.
Antony was well within his right to have forced a probe. He should have come out all guns blazing and rounded up the culprits. But his response was masterly inaction.
At every step of the way, those empowered to act decisively did not, either through apathy or through design. The prime minister, of course, has chosen to hover above the fray though he, too, could have acted in this case. I often hear the argument that nothing must be done to upset the 'equilibrium' of the defence forces because they are the last frontier, as it were, in our imperfect democracy. But I wonder if this hideous mess presided over by the men in charge will do anything to boost the morale of the forces. Come to think of it, the 'equilibrium' of the forces is much more likely to be offset with the knowledge, or even rumours, of dubious middlemen conducting business that affects their profession.
Ever since the good Mr Antony took over as defence minister, he has made a virtue of his clean image. But in maintaining his pristine personage, he's allowed a dangerous drift in this crucial ministry that now seems to be run by faceless bureaucrats to whom all manners of arms dealers and middlemen have access. This is bad management and it is not even good politics.
To the world at large, this bungling in what is supposed to be the one institution in India that works and is clean can't inspire any confidence. It is one thing to say we are at the high table of the world's great economies, it's quite another if we can't even assure our own people that the nation is in safe hands. We are very proud that we are the world's largest arms importer — although why we don't try and be proud of manufacturing our own weapons beats me. It would make us a great dealer prouder if we can be assured that shadowy middlemen don't operate in this 'domestic sector' of defence.
The defence minister is now waiting patiently for the probe report. Has he made any reassuring statement to the nation? If he has, we certainly did not hear it. But if there’s one person who should either be more clear about stating his facts or keep a respectful silence, it is the man in the thick of it all himself: Gen Singh. Already, he's done enough damage to the institution of the Indian Army by crying himself hoarse and running from one media pillar to another media post. It's not really up to us to believe him when he says that he's furious about the leaking of the letter he wrote to the prime minister to the media and that it was an act of high treason. Treason or not, it certainly makes the Indian Army and the way it deals with the government on serious issues seem like a bad day in a local sports club.
So before matters become even more embarrassing than they already have for both the army and the government, could we please see Gen Singh ride on his way into the sunset? Quietly, and at ease, please.