New Delhi: The Congress' woes seem endless. No sooner had the party experienced a resounding rebuff in the recent assembly elections than it had to gird its loins to face a series of unprecedented challenges from the Chief of the Army Staff, Gen. V.K. Singh.
If the party and the government thought that the Supreme Court's obiter dicta on the age row involving the general had ended the matter, they were sadly mistaken because the army chief was not about to go quietly into the sunset. Evidently, he does not believe that the military, like children, should be seen and not heard.
So, he has turned on its head all the restraint of his predecessors, who maintained the British tradition of wearing a stiff upper lip. Whether or not Gen. Singh's garrulity is the result of the ubiquitous, 24x7 news channels, which weren't there during the time of the earlier army chiefs, the fact remains that the succession of 'revelations' made by him - the offer of a bribe to him or about the obsolescence stalking the armed services in a letter to the prime minister - have shown up the government's seeming incapacity to govern - a charge which has haunted it ever since it let former telecom minister Andimuthu Raja run amok.
This impression may have gained ground because of the perception that neither Prime Minister Manmohan Singh nor Defence Minister A.K. Antony is the most assertive of men. If the age row had to be handled by the judiciary - just as it did with the telecom scandal - the bribery charge remained under wraps till Gen. Singh referred to it in a newspaper interview. A proactive government would have acted much earlier.
Similarly, it would not have been seen to have neglected defence preparedness despite the defence minister's warning in 2010 against the possibility of the country having to wage a two-front war against two nuclear-armed enemies.
The government as well as the general may now express outrage over the leakage of the letter. But where the ordinary citizen is concerned, the real outrage will be over the apparent erosion of the nation's military strength despite a 17 percent hike in the defence budget, especially in view of frequent reports about China's flaunting of muscles on the northeastern border.
The disclosures about a weakened army were all the more embarrassing when the BRICS Summit was being held in New Delhi and Chinese President Hu Jintao was in town. The pride of holding a major international event was marred by the disconcerting leaks even if the VIP guests were impressed by the vibrancy of the Indian media.
Needless to say, the revelations were a godsend for the opposition, especially the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which has always projected itself as a champion of military strength and had unilaterally opted to showcase India's nuclear capability in 1998 as soon as it came to power at the centre. Now, all that it has said about the Congress' wimpishness has come true.
There is, therefore, little doubt that the Congress will be very much on the back foot in the coming weeks since nothing hurts a party more than the charge of having been negligent in matters of security. Being accused of corruption is bad enough. But to be remiss where the stiffening of the military muscle is concerned is an unpardonable offence in the eyes of the average person.
Not surprisingly, the government's inveterate adversary, civil society activists led by Anna Hazare, have lost no time in jumping into the fray by siding with the army chief. Earlier, they had decided to resume their anti-corruption agitation with the holding of a token fast in New Delhi and the launching of a jail bharo - fill the jails - campaign in August if no FIRs are filed against 14 union ministers who are corrupt in their view.
Evidently, Team Anna has not been deterred by their inability to organise a similar campaign after the Mumbai fiasco last December when Anna's rally failed to draw a crowd.
However, irrespective of whether the movement fizzles out this time as well, or whether there is a ceasefire between the government and General Singh following Antony's expression of confidence in the three service chiefs, the Congress and the government will continue to be buffeted by allegations of sleaze and slackness.
If the opposition hadn't been in such disarray - the BJP embroiled in factionalism, the regional parties cloistered in their local ghettos, the Left in a limbo - it would have been nearly impossible for the government to get off the mat. Even now, the Congress' seat share in parliament and voting percentage are bound to fall in the next general election unless there are visible signs of an increase in military preparedness and the passage of an effective Lokpal bill to check corruption.