The Indian Army fish is rotting from the head. Memories are still fresh of the bruising confrontation earlier this year between the politically ambitious General V K Singh and an inept government that had precipitated a civil-military firestorm over the army chief’s quest for an extra year in office. Now, as Business Standard reports (see “New battle for next Army chief”, October 30), another aggrieved general is going to court in his quest for the top job.
The current chief, General Bikram Singh, who took over from the divisive General V K Singh in June, has singularly failed to apply a healing touch and to undo the partisanship his predecessor unleashed. Most new bosses, even sports coaches, are expected to provide a new direction. In five months on the job, General Bikram Singh’s new direction consists only of orders that officers must greet each other with the salutation of “Jai Hind”, instead of merely giving each other the time of day. The new chief also wants meetings to end with everyone chorusing “Bharat Mata ki Jai”.
Intelligence reports have not yet confirmed that the Pakistani and Chinese militaries are quaking in their boots.
Let us be charitable; perhaps General Bikram Singh needs more time. His arrival in Delhi was traumatic and uncertain, since his predecessor assiduously sabotaged his elevation in the internecine fighting that now seems to be a part of the game. Once in Delhi, the new chief’s priority was to set himself up in the five-star style that now defines our culture of generalship. In his first days in the hallowed office of legends like General K S Thimayya and Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw, the new chief and his staff busied themselves with putting together a retinue of a dozen waiters, cooks, dhobis and assorted tradesmen to sustain life in Army House.
Called upon for retainers, a bevy of army formations milked out these retainers from combat units, where tough young officers and the legendary Indian jawan have learned how to make do with the dwindling resources that their own generals leave them. At least two senior flag-rank officers personally screened the men who would serve their chief, knowing that a spilt drink or over-salted soup could reverberate unpleasantly in their own careers.
The chief will naturally deny this, since none of these tradesmen is officially posted to Army House, his tony residence on New Delhi’s leafy Rajaji Marg. Conveniently, this entourage is on “temporary duty” with army units in the capital. But any visitor to Army House would find them working there, just as visits to many army posts and pickets would find combat soldiers cooking and washing instead of training and patrolling, simply because their cook or dhobi is languishing in Delhi.
This travesty faces no resistance from subordinate generals, many of whom are hardly angels themselves. Lieutenant General Noble Thamburaj, who headed the Southern Army, was arrested by the Central Bureau of Investigation for gross irregularities concerning defence land. Two army chiefs, Generals Deepak Kapoor and N C Vij, along with several army commanders, received illegal flats in Mumbai’s infamous Adarsh Housing Society. Lieutenant General Shankar Ghosh, the Western Army commander until June, had his medical category downgraded last year, entitling him to disability pension. But when General V K Singh’s confrontation with the government made dismissal a possibility, General Ghosh (then the senior-most army commander) upgraded his medical category to be eligible for a move to Army House.
If the generals believe that these shenanigans go unnoticed by junior officers or the rank and file, they are mistaken. The recent face-offs between officers and enlisted men in military bases near Samba, Amritsar and Leh suggest a decline in the ironclad faith that the army jawan has always had in his leaders. Today’s culture of entitlement at the top – where funds, resources and manpower are poured into supporting the five-star lifestyles of a few dozen senior generals – threatens to seep downwards, poisoning the entire system. It is difficult to remain idealistic, motivated and dead straight – the defining characteristics of young Indian officers – when so much wrongdoing is evident at the top. Even honest officers are inevitably corrupted by a system in which outright financial dishonesty is condoned as “perks and privileges of office”.
As worrying as the corruption is the lack of intellectual direction that generals provide the army’s young leaders. This was evident from the recent flood of chain emails between mid-level and junior officers, expressing outrage that the army was being blamed in the media for the 1962 debacle. In the intellectual desert that the generals have made the army, every red-blooded officer has bought into the “Haqeeqat myth”, in which gallant soldiers, badly deployed by incompetent politicians and bureaucrats, mowed down hordes of Chinese before laying down their lives. While this is true in several cases, there are many more cases of entire Indian sub-units fleeing from strong defensive positions into waiting Chinese ambushes. Any professional military studies its defeats even more deeply than its victories. But professional study is not on the army’s agenda. The generals believe that officers and men must be busy with creating the illusion of command success, howsoever transient. With no time to read or no guidance and inspiration from the top, human development is merely a buzzword.
Preening incongruously amidst this crumbling edifice, General Bikram Singh has taken his media managers’ ill-considered advice that controversies are best dealt with by avoiding the press. General V K Singh’s mistake lay in seeking out the media, say the same advisors who had advised the previous chief. But with controversy increasingly swirling, the army’s leadership can no longer deal with its growing image problem by sticking its head in the sand.