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Aditi Phadnis: A battle of wills

Antony has not always been averse to taking tough decisions. What has changed now?

Aditi Phadnis 

There are some things about the Indian army that haven’t changed since 1947. One of these is the PT shoes that jawans are issued: canvas with thin rubber soles, shoddy and old-fashioned, manufactured by the Ordnance Factory Board.

Defence Minister A K Antony was on a visit to the north east in February last year. At the 3 Corps headquarters in Rangapahar in Nagaland, Antony asked jawans if they needed anything. They said hesitantly if they could get a new pair of shoes every year instead of every 26 months that is the current practice…and if the shoes could be better quality… .

A K AntonyEveryone in headquarters agreed that this was imperative; the Indian jawan deserved better and put up a proposal that canvas shoes be replaced with smart Reebok, Adidas or Fila shoes that were at once smart and light but rugged.

In addition, a proposal was made that combat boots be replaced as well, with all-weather durable and lighter boots.

The proposal reached Antony’s desk. The outgo was an additional Rs 140 crore that the defence minister had the authority to clear without referring it to anyone else.

Barely had it landed there that he got another missive. A member of the BJP who is also an animal rights activist wrote to the minister that she had heard there was a proposal to replace these shoes with leather ones. She claimed to have information that the outer and back flap of the new type of shoes would be made with cow’s leather (favoured because it is soft and malleable). She said 4,000 cows would be slaughtered to make these shoes that would require 200,000 meters of leather. This was unacceptable and the proposal must be re-examined.

The next day the minister returned the file with the noting that he was not yet ready to take this decision. The army is now looking for a firm that will make the same shoes with buffalo leather, a process that will take at least three years. Verbally Antony told officers that if the BJP raised a fuss in Parliament, and people began asking questions... .

This, army officers say, is what is wrong with Antony: his pusillanimity.

This is what is so puzzling. This is the same Antony who nixed the proposal in Cabinet to allow foreign direct investment in retail. It can’t have been easy to have half the Cabinet sitting there and glaring at you as one of the most important decisions taken by the UPA II government was shot down. But Antony put his opposition to the proposal on record. This is the same Antony who made up the government’s mind for it in 2010 when it was debating whether telecom minister A Raja should be asked to resign in the wake of the 2G spectrum scam. “If the CAG says he has taken money, he has to go till he’s cleared,” said Antony on the phone when asked for his view, given that the DMK was an important partner of the Congress in the UPA.

Nor has he shied away from taking unpalatable political decisions earlier in his career. When he became the chief minister of Kerala in 1996, Antony banned the sale and production of arrack (country liquor), stupefying voters. Not content with this, he opted to take a revenue hit but trebled the rates of excise on Indian made foreign liquor. Because arrack is a source of livelihood for thousands of families, the Left Front came out on the streets to demonstrate against him. The Congress party begged him to reverse the decision. He didn’t budge. This won him the eternal support of women and the church. The same bishops opposed him bitterly in 1974 for his stand that all church-owned (especially Catholic) educational institutions be nationalised as the state pays a major share of their expenses.

What Antony has told friends in unguarded moments is: he is happy to listen to any view, consider any proposal. But what he will never do is interfere in service matters and undermine the forces in any way.

Antony is not a hierarchical minister. Even brigadiers have occasionally got a call with the raksha mantri at the other end wanting to clarify this or that point. But if you’ve fallen foul of the chief, the defence minister will never heed your appeal. Lt General Rameshwar Roy, director general of the Assam Rifles, was punished by his recall from the paramilitary force by the army following “monetary discrepancies” during his prior posting as the 16 Corps commander in Nagrota (allegedly, hairdressing bills of his wife were treated as an official expense). A home ministry enquiry cleared him of all charges. But the army would have none of it. And Antony absolutely refused to interfere although an injustice occurred under his nose.

This is why General V K Singh can rest assured. With just over a month to go for his retirement, his job is intact. Because Antony knows that if the current Chief of Army Staff goes home before May 31, the current Army Commander Western Command, Lt General Shankar Ghose, will have to be appointed the next chief as he will be senior to the chief designate, Lt General Bikram Singh. General Ghose will be well within his rights to go to court if he is superseded. Resignation is also an option. Then, Antony will have the exit of the two senior-most officers from the Indian army on his hands. And the cure will be worse then the disease!

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First Published: Sat, March 31 2012. 00:09 IST