General in his Labyrinth

Will the army chief opt for a political banner post retirement to reclaim his ‘lost pride’? 

Akash Bisht Delhi 

Team Anna invites General VK Singh… VK Singh unveils former PM Chandrashekhar’s statue… VK Singh hints at one rank, one pension…  

These headlines seem to have nothing in common except for the army chief’s name. But, if one tries to read the political undertones in these lines, this could very well signify which way the wind will blow and whether ‘wise men would move with the wind’. Ever since the General was denied his due, the buzz is that he will be opting for a political banner to carry forward his fight and reclaim his ‘lost pride’. 

Observers believe that it is highly unlikely that the General will go away quietly. His uneasy truce with the ministry of defence seems to be a mirage and last-minute surprises can shake this weak Congress-led UPA government in Delhi. “I saw the countdown to the London Olympics somewhere and it immediately reminded me of the General’s case. I am sure that Defence Minister AK Antony has a calendar in his office and he too must be doing his own countdown till the General retires,” says a top army officer, now retired. He is of the view that there could be fireworks from the General’s camp in the last week of May. “Just wait and watch, they will not surrender so timidly,” he adds.  

A testimony to the General’s persistence was the recent PIL filed by a few retired army officers, civil servants and journalists opposing Lt-Gen Bikram Singh’s appointment as the next army chief. Various allegations against Bikram Singh were levelled; his role in a fake encounter case in Jammu and Kashmir in 2001 and a ‘sex scandal’ in a UN peace-keeping mission in the Congo in 2008 were resurrected. Finding no justifiable ground to entertain it, the Supreme Court bench dismissed the petition. VK Singh’s supporters denied that the PIL was a ploy to hang on to the coveted post. 

There could be fireworks from the General’s camp in the last week of May. ‘Just wait and watch, they will not surrender so timidly’  

Interestingly, the case against Lt Gen Bikram Singh’s appointment was argued by lawyer Prashant Bhushan, a key member of Team Anna. Bhushan defended the General’s allegations of corruption and involvement of middlemen in defence deals. Recently, Team Anna released a set of documents allegedly showing commissions paid to a middleman in a helicopter deal. At a media briefing, members of Team Anna said they would welcome VK Singh if he wished to join their platform — post-retirement. “We have never met VK Singh. As ordinary citizens, we support him. We are proud of him. We would welcome him to this platform or any other platform. Post-retirement, we are sure he will continue his fight and show a ray of hope to the country,” declared Arvind Kejriwal. It is also being alleged that VK Singh’s supporters provided support to Team Anna when they were campaigning against Congressin in Hisar  -- Singh’s home town.

Severely critical of the move to approach the court against Bikram Singh, retired Major General Ashok Mehta said, “I was surprised, considering the seniority of these individuals. It was astonishing to see that they didn’t have the sense and balance to recognize it as a futile attempt. This could only be the tip of the iceberg and there could be much more in store before the General formally retires.” 

VK Singh’s daughter, Mrinalini Singh, 30, widely considered the ‘mastermind’ behind the General’s public positions, denied these conspiracy theories and asserted that her father’s intentions were completely apolitical and he was not after any post or ‘kursi’. “We have nothing to do with the PIL,” she told Hardnews. “I am not even aware of its content. As far as Team Anna is concerned, I don’t subscribe to their style, but, definitely, I support the cause,” she says. 

Army officers find it disturbing that VK Singh has chosen to hobnob with political personalities. Privately, his unveiling of former PM Chandrashekhar’s statue at Ballia in eastern UP has been severely criticised. “No army chief has ever unveiled the statue of a political person since this goes against the army’s logic of being apolitical,” says a former General.  

Due to retire on May 31, 2011, Gen VK Singh opened a can of worms after he went to the Supreme Court over the age issue. Since then, the army has been drawn into multiple controversies, many of them involving VK Singh. The bugging episode, the bribe offer, the unusual movement of two army units, the leak of the letter to the prime minister — the army chief’s name has been dragged into all these controversies. 

What is DRDO doing with 5,000 scientists? Making beri beri juice or some herbal medicine? Is this their mandate?’

However, it was the timing of the Tatra scam that flummoxed even his ardent supporters. His decision to reveal everything to the media raised eyebrows; critics questioned the timing. His supporters argue that he had no choice since he was not entertained by Antony. It was in 2010 that the General had first informed him about the bribe offer and Antony asked him to pursue the case; but, strangely, the General refused to move against the officer who allegedly offered him Rs 14 crore as bribe. He didn’t even give the complaint in writing. 

His critics argue, Why didn’t he lodge a written complaint or police complaint? Why did he wait for two years to make the bribe allegation public?

Also, army officers allege that it is against army norms for defence personnel to disclose anything to the media without seeking permission from the defence ministry. “Rule 21 of the army says that any defence personnel before speaking to the media should seek permission from the defence PRO and VK Singh violated this code,” says a former army officer, a harsh critic of the General. “He also says that he recorded the conversation, but when he was informed that the tapes would be sent to forensic experts, he diluted the issue,” says a former Lt General. 

However, with these revelations, Gen VK Singh did expose the role of middlemen in arms deals out of the closet. A well-known fact, middlemen and sleazy lobbyists have been instrumental in getting necessary clearances for several defence deals and the Tatra scam could just be a dubious detail in the larger scheme of things. With India’s defence budget exceeding Rs 2 lakh crore, and with India expected to spend Rs 4 lakh crore on capital expenditure between 2011 and 2016, the Rs 7,000 crore Tatra deal seems like peanuts. “Almost 70 per cent of this Rs 4 lakh crore would involve imports. To get these lucrative contracts, foreign firms employ middlemen who are masters of the nuances of complicated defence purchases. In terms of the quantum of money involved, this deal is nothing,” says a former army officer. He also points out that the Tatra scam is crucial since “never in the past” has anyone dared bribe the army chief himself. 

Not one former or current army officer raised questions on the General’s integrity, honesty or even his intentions

Other army officers point out that these “kickbacks” usually fill the coffers of political parties and if they are serious about eliminating these scams then they should clean up their house first. “Who is the master? It isn’t the General or Admiral. Only certain politicians and bureaucrats are benefiting from these under-the-table exchanges. So why blame the General who wanted to clean up the muck,” says a retired Admiral.  

Experts point out that, for close to 50 years, India has been importing defence equipment and has repeatedly failed to address this sensitive issue. “Why haven’t we indigenized these technologies? What is DRDO doing with 5,000 scientists? Making Leh Berry juice or some herbal medicine? Is this their mandate? The real corruption happens in these defence PSUs that have failed miserably,” says a senior defence official. 

It is widely believed that this controversy has been the lowest point in the history of army and defence ministry relations. The issue could have been sorted out much earlier.  It should not have been allowed to spill over in public. “One must not absolve the MoD or defence minister who allowed the situation to reach this level. VK Singh was upset with the inability of the political leadership to act and he wanted to correct it, but he was routinely snubbed by the ministry. That is the reason why he took such a drastic step,” says an official. 

Remarkably, not one former or current army officer Hardnews spoke to raised questions on the General’s integrity, honesty or even his intentions. They are only perturbed by his decision to stick to his chair. “His case is like that of our former president, VV Giri’s wife. The story is, once Giri retired, his wife wanted to take away the president’s chair. When told that she couldn't do it, she sat on the chair and refused to budge,” says a former Major General.

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: MAY 2012