On April Fools’ Day 2010, while taking over as Chief of Army Staff, General V K Singh identified his foremost goal as restoring the army’s “internal health”. On Thursday, in what surely will be a frosty ceremony, he will hand over to his successor, General Bikram Singh, an army whose generals are badly divided. Not even in the 1950s and 1960s, when the ambitious Lieutenant General B M Kaul exploited his proximity to Jawaharlal Nehru to split the officer community into pro-Kaul and anti-Kaul factions, did India witness the sorry spectacle of an army chief publicly denigrating his top commanders.
Where did V K Singh go wrong? Many argued (including this columnist) that the army chief was within his rights to take his government to the Supreme Court. This after the defence ministry rejected his petition to adjust his date of birth, and thereby allow him another 10 months in office. But once the Supreme Court judges rubbished his case in court, forcing him to withdraw his petition, V K Singh faced the prospect of an anonymous retirement just four months away.
His desperate riposte was ill-judged from the start. Soon after his setback in the Supreme Court, a group of illustrious citizens, including a retired navy chief, Admiral Ramdas, filed a writ petition in the Supreme Court that rested on the communal narrative of a Sikh conspiracy to get General Bikram Singh into office. While the petitioners cannot be conclusively linked with V K Singh, the evidence suggests that they were at least manipulated by him. On February 10, the day V K Singh withdrew from the Supreme Court, the general’s henchmen approached me with a detailed briefing on “Operation Moses”. Reduced to its cringe-worthy essentials, this had Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and his wife; Planning Commission Chairman Montek Singh Ahluwalia and his wife; former army chief General J J Singh and his wife; and the Shiromani Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee (every Sikh down the chain, you get the drift?) in cahoots to get V K Singh out of office on May 31, 2012, when Bikram Singh would be poised to take over from him. I declined to pursue these improbable and slanderous allegations. Regrettably, Admiral Ramdas & Co approached the Supreme Court, challenging Bikram Singh’s appointment.
Perhaps this communalism should not have been a surprise. After all, the Rajput card was played without compunction whilst V K Singh was fighting his date of birth battle. A group of Rajput parliamentarians was dispatched to the prime minister to plead on his behalf. When a proxy was needed to file a Supreme Court writ petition on the general’s date of birth, the “Rohtak Grenadiers’ Association”, packed with the general’s fellow-Rajputs, was conveniently at hand.
Sadly for V K Singh, nothing worked. The PM politely reminded the Rajput MPs that the army must remain apolitical. The Supreme Court, less politely, dismissed the Rohtak Grenadiers’ Association writ petition. And the apex court, while throwing out the “Operation Moses” writ petition in end-April, scolded the petitioners for communalising the issue.
With avenues closing fast, V K Singh apparently decided to use his office to launch himself into politics. By end-March, he had donned the garb of an anti-corruption crusader. First an earlier interview was dusted out in which he described turning down a Rs 14 crore bribe by one of his senior generals; that was followed in short order by the leak of his letter (still a whodunit!) to the PM warning about the army’s poor state of operational readiness. The insinuation was clear: with corruption below him and indifference above, V K Singh alone was a bastion of morality. Last month, in an unabashedly political move, the chief travelled to Ballia for a Samajwadi Party function to unveil a statue of former prime minister Chandra Shekhar.
Last Friday, the outgoing chief proved that he had lost any lingering trace of judgement. Sharing a platform with R K Anand – a disreputable lawyer who the Supreme Court convicted for contempt of court after an NDTV camera caught him buying off a key witness in the notorious BMW kill-and-run case – V K Singh launched a public tirade against one of his corps commanders, Lt General Dalbir Singh Suhag, ironically accusing him of making public a show-cause notice issued to him. Suhag was apparently being targeted as the army chief who would take over from Bikram Singh. Earlier that day, V K Singh had attended an ex-servicemen’s rally in Dharamsala, where he sat listening as former Congressman Vijay Singh Mankotia flayed the government.
Fortunately, it is time to turn the page. It would be a mistake to believe (as Pakistan’s generals are prone to do) that the Indian Army will remain deflated for long. The young and mid-ranking officers, and the rank and file, remain untouched by V K Singh’s shenanigans. Bikram Singh has his task cut out for him: to apply a healing touch and to visibly and conclusively bury the vendettas that V K Singh pursued. The corrosiveness of the outgoing chief will itself make his successor look good. Above all, Bikram Singh must embrace the virtues of silence. An army chief expresses himself with tanks and guns, not in lengthy interviews on news television.