'What do you make of the Express 'coup'?' This time I sensed Pertie really wanted to know. It wasn't a trick question. Well, here's my considered answer.
For a start, it's a disingenuous story. The size, scale and the language suggests it's about a potential coup that was nipped in the bud. But the term itself is never used. Why? Did the paper lack the courage of its alleged discovery?
Yet, when the article says "New Delhi has come to be totally relaxed and trustful of the apolitical and professionally correct nature of its military leadership" isn't it hinting that, suddenly, there were grounds for a nasty surprise?
Second, the story relies on slender, if not improbable, detail. How can the movement of two units, totalling at the most 1,400 soldiers, presage a coup? By some counts there are already 10,000 soldiers in and around Delhi. If General VK Singh was planning one, he had enough manpower at hand. He didn't need this insignificant addition.
Third, the story hinges on an order that does not exist. It asks: "Why was the well-set protocol, that any military movement, at any time, in the NCR (National Capital Region) has to be pre-notified to MoD (Ministry of Defence) not followed?" It's the alleged violation of this order that is the clinching suggestion of mischief. But as a former chief, a former Director General Military Operations (DGMO) and a former defence secretary have confirmed - and the present defence secretary, too - there is no such order. So, it follows, there was no violation of it. Hence, no mischief.
Fourth, it relies on certain 'facts' to convince you that the government panicked. It says the defence minister was alerted late at night, the PM "at the crack of dawn" and the defence secretary asked to cut short his visit to Malaysia and, on return, "opened his office late at night" and asked the DGMO for an explanation. We have no proof of this. We simply have to accept it.
But… The Hindu says the defence secretary returned on the morning of January 17. So surely he could have met the DGMO at once and not waited till his office was closed and then reopen it and summon him? And if the PM was woken at the crack of dawn, he could have summoned the army chief and sought an immediate explanation and not waited for the defence secretary to act 12 hours later?
Fifth, at least half the Express facts were revealed by the army itself in a press briefing on March 10. Rediff.com did a story based on those details three days later. Now, when has any army held a press conference on a failed coup?
If you look at the Rediff story, the details of the movement of the Para Brigade are the same as those 'revealed' by the Express. The interpretation is radically different. Who's correct?
So, what's my conclusion? I can accept that mischief-makers mispresented routine troop movements to worry the government and create suspicion of the army chief. In the circumstances, this battered government would have easily lost its sang·froid.
But can you credibly suggest this was a putative coup? And, despite its vulnerability, did the government really panic? That's where my reservations - actually, my doubts - begin.
In smaller type and on an inside page this would have been an interesting, if quirky, story. But splashed all over the front page, with a three-tier headline, it was way over the top.
But by now I can bet Pertie is snoring!
Views expressed by the author are personal