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Politics and the General

Is Gen VK Singh, a former army chief, justified in demanding the immediate dissolution of Parliament and, separately, threatening to gherao it or is this a lapse of judgement? Karan Thapar writes.

columns Updated: Nov 04, 2012 01:37 IST

Is Gen VK Singh, a former army chief, justified in demanding the immediate dissolution of Parliament and, separately, threatening to gherao it or is this a lapse of judgement? Let’s see if we can come to an answer without exciting emotions and provoking further controversy.

To begin with, Gen VK Singh has every right to make any demand. He’s a free man in a democracy and can call for the early dissolution of Parliament or a gherao whenever he wants. After retirement, he’s no longer bound by service regulations or other restraints.

The important question is was it fitting for him to speak as he did or an impropriety? Here the key issue is simple: is it proper for any responsible citizen, but more particularly a former army chief, to demand that a constitutionally elected parliament with a valid mandate of 18 months more, be dissolved because he doesn’t approve of its members or their behaviour? I would say no. The gherao is of lesser importance.

However, Gen VK Singh is not an ordinary man. The facts and the wider context of his case make him special. Let’s focus on this aspect.

First, it’s just five months since he retired (May 31) and, in addition, he is honorary Colonel-in-Chief for life of his regiment. So his connections to the army remain close and the danger of his influencing serving officers and soldiers is real. With this proximity does he not have a moral duty to be careful and cautious about what he says? Would you really say no?

Second, Gen Singh sought and obtained special permission to live in a government house for a year after retirement, instead of the traditional three months privilege granted to his predecessors. So, today, when he demands the immediate dismissal of the government from whom he obtained favours is he not triggering an issue of propriety or, at least, ingratitude? Again, would you really say no?

Now, let’s come to the wider context. Though retired, is there a possibility Gen Singh’s comments will embarrass the army or leave serving officers and soldiers feeling uncomfortable? More importantly, has he, albeit unintentionally, created doubts about the army? If there’s even a small chance that the answer to either question is yes, surely, any chief would want to avoid such an outcome? After 40 years of service that would be the first instinct of every service commander. I’m surprised it wasn’t Gen. Singh’s.

Yet Gen Singh has every right to enter politics and espouse any position he chooses. That’s undeniable. But because many of us regard politics as a contagion we need to protect the services from, I would suggest two simple but necessary precautions.

First, a cooling-off period of a year or two — so that the link with the army fades from popular memory — would be advisable. Otherwise there’s a possibility a chief is exploiting the renown and regard he achieved because of the army to advance an inevitably contentious career in politics.

Second, because the armed services are avowedly non-political, a retired chief should give up the use of his rank. I know this will not be easy. An army rank, whether that of captain or field marshal, is cherished and held with honour. But this is a necessary sacrifice to keep the army free of the taint of suspicion.

All that apart, I welcome Mr VK Singh’s decision to become a politician. I’m confident he’ll make a good MP.

Views expressed by the author are personal.