The controversy surrounding General V.K. Singh’s memo has brought to the fore more deep-seated problems in India’s civil-military relationship.
As recent deliberations in the Indian parliament suggested, the controversy over the leaking of a confidential communication between Army Chief, General V.K. Singh, and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has become increasingly acrimonious. One hopes that the principal interlocutors will help to calm the turbulence, which, if left unchecked, can have very serious long-term implications for national security.
This is not to suggest that the issues that have been raised in this churning are not worthy of serious consideration by the government, parliament, civil society, and media. At the heart of the controversy is the content of the letter sent by the Army Chief to the Prime Minister. The letter alerts the latter about the serious deficiencies in the army’s inventory and preparedness to face an operational exigency, and expresses the General’s anguish at the various reasons for this sorry state of affairs in the Indian military machine.
The disclosure of this letter could not have come at a more inopportune moment for Manmohan Singh, considering that he was hosting a summit for the leaders of the BRICS at the same time. The guests included the Hu Jintao – President of a country that causes deep concern in the Indian security establishment – a feeling that was reflected in the army chief's letter.
But democracies have their own texture and rhythm and one could suggest that the tenor of the debate in Parliament, and the manner in which the deliberations over civil-military relations spilled into the media, are indicative of the resilience of the Indian democratic experience.
Three issues central to the current controversy need to be illuminated. The first is the manner in which a highly confidential letter from the army chief to the prime minister came into the public domain. Clearly, there was some party in the loop who chose to leak the letter – selectively. This is a very serious breach of national security and privileged communication, and responsibility for this will have to be fixed – impartially – at the earliest. Both the army chief and the Defence Minister, A.K. Antony, have condemned this act and it remains to be seen how the investigation will proceed. The Intelligence Bureau has been directed to investigate, and Gen. Singh has called this an act of “treason.”
The second issue regards the content of the letter, and here it may be noted that much of the concern and anguish expressed by the army chief is a familiar litany amongst the professionals who follow the Indian security debate. It is a sad reality that going back to the post Rajiv Gandhi era (from 1990 onwards), the modernisation and replacement of old inventory in the Indian military has been very inadequate. Large gaps exist and the most glaring example of this is the fact that the Indian government has not been able to identify and acquire a new artillery gun and that the controversy over the Bofors scandal of the ‘80s is a shadow that has not yet lifted.
Concurrently, in this two-decade period, India’s ability to produce military equipment within the country has been woefully inadequate and the defence public sector units and the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) have not been able to deliver what the Indian military requires for the operational preparedness that national security mandates. And though India now has the dubious distinction of being among the world’s largest importers of military equipment, this aspect has never been discussed in Parliament in the last two decades. The government has paid mere lip service to the problem; it has set up the Task Forces but has not implemented their recommendations or even placed this debate in the public domain.
The prevailing status-quo where India continues to import arms and equipment and where the apex of the Indian military is kept out of the higher decision making matrix, has led to some very undesirable consequences, of which the current controversy is a manifestation. Civil-military relations are brittle – the Indian political class has no direct contact with the armed forces, and the civil service provides the interface. Corruption in various arms deals has become rampant, and from the Bofors-HDW submarine procurement scandals of the late 1980s, to more recent scams, the received wisdom is that the Indian electoral cycle and the tainted politico-bureaucrat combine have been responsible for nurturing an ethos of corruption in military procurement.
This draws attention to the third strand in the current controversy – that of corruption in high office and the manner in which allegations of fiscal impropriety have been pursued by the Indian state. Whether it is the allegations against other generals or other matters that have lain dormant, corruption has become the more visible leitmotif for the Indian state and its tentacles have spread deep into the social fabric.
While Gen. Singh may be castigated for procedural lapses (such as going to the Supreme Court for redress over his age row, or speaking to the media) in many ways, the dark cloud generated by his actions may still have a silver lining. Critical issues such as corruption in high office, civil-military relations, the gaps in the Indian military, and the culture of media leaks, need to be examined objectively over a sustained period. The General may have just brought these critical issues out in the public domain in India's highly transparent democratic system.
The BRICS Summit and the DefExpo provide a backdrop and context as to why both the image and reality of a creaking India need to be adequately reviewed and repaired. Institutional integrity, whether that of the army chief, the defence minister, or the Prime Minister's Office, is sacred and should be protected at all costs.
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
*[This article was originally published by South Asia Monitor .]