A Government at War with its Army – Part 2

Instead of investigating the declining standards and increasing corruption in Indian defence forces, India's politicians are trying their best to malign the whistleblower. This is part two in a series of two articles. Read part one here.

The labors of Heracles to clean the mythical Augean stables would pale in comparison to the efforts of the Chief of the Army staff (COAS), General V.K. Singh, to clean the Augean stables of the Indian Defence system. Whereas Heracles succeeded in cleaning out the filth with assistance from the rivers Alpheus and Pineus, General Singh seems to be fighting to stem the endemic rot in the Indian Defence system alone.

General Singh has had a recent history of trouble with the government. He failed in his bid to get the government to recognize his ‘actual’ date of birth in the service records, which would have extended his tenure as COAS. He then revealed that he had been offered a bribe from a retired senior army officer to approve the acquisition of 600 sub-standard vehicles for the army. The retired army officer is now working as a lobbyist, and apparently offered General Singh a bribe of $2.3mn.

Incidentally, General Singh had stopped the order for these trucks on the basis of the vehicle’s underperformance and overpricing. Dissatisfied with the performance of the trucks, General Singh wanted to open up the bidding process. His goal was to bring transparency to the murky system of defence procurement. The alleged offer of a bribe was a characteristic tactic to co-opt an honest officer into a corrupt system by offering a payoff for approving inferior equipment.

The Indian Defense system has long suffered from endemic corruption. Unscrupulous politicians have used the primacy of civilian institutions over the armed forces to ensure that they are able to earn payoffs for the money they allocate for projects or equipment.

As early as 1948, barely a year after India won its independence from the British and at a time when it was still struggling to find its feet after a bloody partition, the country was rocked by the ‘Jeep Scandal.’ V.K. Krishna Menon, the Indian High Commissioner to Great Britain and a favorite of the then Prime Minister Nehru, circumvented procedures and ordered army jeeps from a foreign firm. The entire amount for the consignment was paid upfront. The foreign firm not only supplied inferior jeeps but also did not supply the number that it was supposed to. This led to the first financial scam in Independent India. Despite Menon’s role in the scandal, Nehru appointed him Defense Minister a decade later.

As Defense Minister, Menon refused to consider the then COAS General Thimmaya’s plans for preparing the Army for the forthcoming Sino-Indian conflict of 1962. Indian armed forces equipped with obsolete arms and ammunitions were decimated in the war. The ignominy of the military capitulation was the culmination of a process of negligence in the armed forces that had started with General Thimmaya’s humiliation.

This process of ignoring defense needs continued and in 1987, the country had a sense of déjà vu as Nehru’s grandson, Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, was accused of receiving financial kickbacks from a Swedish firm for the purchase of artillery guns for the army.

Politicians in India have long had a reputation for venal corruption. The armed forces, on the other hand, retained their reputation for longer and, until recently, were considered to be the torch bearers of probity in public life. The fact that a middleman had the temerity to approach the COAS is worrying. The fact that this middleman is an ex army officer is terrifying. It is symptomatic of the dramatic fall in the Indian military’s standards. More recently, the Sukhna land scam saw the sale of defense land to unscrupulous contractors for throwaway prices in return for illegal payoffs, and is a prime example of the rot that has set into the military.

As COAS, General Singh has initiated measures to cleanse the army of the systemic rot that has crept into the system. His uncompromising stand on corruption led to the dismissal of the senior army officers involved in the Sukhna scam. General Singh also initiated action against officers involved in the Adarsh Housing Society scam, where bureaucrats and senior army officers illegally secured apartments in a housing society in Mumbai. The government’s refusal to accept the ‘actual’ date of birth of General V.K. Singh is widely seen as a riposte to the General’s anti corruption campaign in the army.

When revelations of the proposed bribe to General Singh broke out, it was a major scandal. Curiously, the confidential letter written by General Singh to the Prime Minister was leaked soon after, creating a new furor and deflecting attention from the scandal. The letter presented a catastrophic picture of the army. There has been a depletion of critical ammunition and 97% of the air defense equipment is obsolete. General Singh also mentioned the lack of advanced weaponry for the soldiers in the infantry and Special Forces.

The political class, which has been waiting for an opportunity to hit back at General Singh, is up in arms against the ‘leakage’ of the confidential communiqué .The Parliament resonated with calls for the dismissal of General Singh. He has been referred to as ‘rogue’ and been called ‘devious’ by some politicians. The hyperventilating national media jumped onto the bandwagon with veteran media personalities drawing analogies between the ‘dignified’ exit of General Thimmaya after his fall out with Defense Minister Krishna Menon and General V.K. Singh’s stubborn persistence in office. The fact that General Thimmaya’s refusal to stand up to the venal politicians led to a humiliating defeat in the Sino-Indian war is too complex an idea for these media veterans.

India is a country where timidity before the political class is considered to be a virtue. Speaking truth to power is not in the lexicon of state functionaries or even the media. General Singh upsets the applecart because he has been determined and outspoken in his firm stand against corruption.

The government’s reactions to revelations about corruption are most telling. The initial reaction is invariably to feign ignorance and deny wrongdoing. In case allegations are corroborated with evidence, the government launches a witch-hunt against the whistle blower. Finally, character assassinations of those challenging corruption are done through public statements and pliant figures in the media. This process has been followed most efficiently with General Singh whose courage, competence and motives are all being tarnished.

General Singh is being described to as being ‘frustrated’ over the age row not going in his favor. Certain political commentators have said that timing the revelations with the BRICS summit in New Delhi is resulting in national political embarrassment and the insinuation is that General Singh is not being entirely patriotic.

A closer scrutiny of the facts shows a singular lack of political will to combat corruption in public life. The Defense Minister, A.K. Antony, revealed that General Singh had informed him of the offer of a bribe. Antony also informed the Parliament that he “held his head in his hands in disbelief,” after General Singh had informed him about the bribery attempt. However, it transpires that Antony took no further action despite being one of the rare politicians who do not have a record for corruption. Clearly, Antony was unwilling to stir a hornets’ nest by going against powerful vested interests.

While unwilling to order an investigation into the offer of a bribe to General Singh, Antony was more than happy to order an investigation on the basis of an anonymous complaint about electronic eavesdropping when it had potential to embarrass General Singh. The double standards here are breathtaking. The politicians have been baying for General Singh’s blood for the ‘leakage’ of a confidential communiqué. Instead of verifying the contents of the communiqué and pressing for modernization of the armed forces or, at least, demanding transparency in the defense procurement system, the entire focus is on the ‘leakage’ per se, which might have come from the political class itself.

Denigrating honest officers through fabricated charges have long been a norm for corrupt Indian politicians seeking to distract public attention to sordid financial scandals. Amidst the furor, the one thing that comes to fore is that the political class does not care about institutions. This class only cares about preserving its power, avoiding accountability and persisting with the status quo that allows it opportunities for self-enrichment through rapacious corruption.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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