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Saturday, June 2, 2012

Why General V K Singh should join politics

No army chief in living memory has had such a controversial tenure as General V K Singh. But that has more to do with the proliferation and intrusive nature of modern media (especially television) rather than any extraordinary actions by the outgoing chief.

To give an example, more than two decades ago, General S F Rodrigues as the army chief (1990-93) had sacked two lieutenant general ranking officers for 'moral turpitude'.

It was also in the decade of 1990s and a mere remark by the general that 'good governance is as much business of the armed forces as well' had the media braying for his blood.

The infamous episode when General K S Thimaya, a soldier's soldier, was humiliated is old hat now! Even our only Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw was pilloried for a light hearted remark that if he had been in Pakistan Army they would have won the Bangladesh war! His enhanced pension hung fire for close to 10 years! Even in death, this illustrious son of India, was ignored and given less than his due honour!

Is there a pattern in these happenings? One seems to be that whenever a weak political leadership is at the helm of affairs, it is paranoid about the army and strains every nerve to cut it down to size.

Second and more fundamental trend is that the media and intellectuals deny the democratic right and space to the armed forces that it is willing to give to other government functionaries.

For instance, nobody questions the home secretary if he talks of internal security or the foreign secretary if he talks on foreign policy. But when a service chief makes a statement on defence and security issues, all hell breaks loose!

This aversion to seeing soldiers take on any political leadership role is deep rooted in the Indian psyche. I recall my own father being horrified if I commented on any 'political issue'. Though as a citizen I have the same rights. Yet a retired soldier is expected to 'fade away'.

While in other democracies, retired distinguished generals routinely take up political careers. Not just World War II war hero like Dwight Eisenhower became US President, but closer to time, General Collin Powell became the Secretary of State!

In the leadership vacuum faced by India today, will General V K Singh after retirement take up a political role is a million dollar question!

The plus side for the general is his clean image. Despite some carping critics, he has carried out two very major reforms in the army. The one deals with the abolition of the 'sahayak' (orderly) system in peace stations.

The second deals with the harmonisation of rations for jawans and officers. Both these were long standing grievances of the rank and file in the army. With these necessary reforms, he has brought the army in line with the egalitarian ethos of our democracy. In the din over the date of birth issue, these major steps have gone un-noticed.

The general's plain speak on the lack of war preparedness of the army, again, unfortunately got mired in the controversy over the 'leak' of this letter. General Singh has done his job by alerting the political leadership to the dangers of keeping the army starved of modern equipment. That it has helped our enemies is wrong criticism, for any expert in the field knows very well that our enemies must be well aware of our shortcomings!

You do not need spies to find out that the Indian infantry is equipped with outdated weapons; our display of the outmoded weaponry takes place every January 26 on Rajpath in full view of the world!

Two things go in favour of General Singh. Despite immense pressure and dirty tricks, he stood his ground, unlike Generals Thimmaya or Rodrigues. This has actually raised the morale of the armed forces as they found their chief standing up to injustice. The loss of credibility of the political and bureaucratic elite has been the result.

Unfortunately many veterans and some motivated commentators have been hurling half truths to dent his image. Once retired, the general will be freer to speak his mind.

But if the recent happenings are any guide then it is to be expected that some agencies of the government may go on an overdrive to find some dirt to stick on the soon to be ex-chief.

General Singh seems to have so far shown keen awareness of this reality.

One issue that is crying for the general's attention is factual denial of voting rights to the soldiers and their families. Even our much vaunted Election Commission has been amiss on this issue. While it goes to great length to make sure that people living in the remotest parts have chance to vote, the soldiers serving on the border or their families who follow them all over the country, are routinely denied this basic democratic right.

The situation is similar for other uniformed forces like the CRPF, BSF etc. Even in the midst of Second World War, the British ensured that soldiers on the Burma front had a chance to vote.

One of the cardinal reasons that the politicians are cold to the problem of men in uniform is that they are seldom able to vote and are nobody's vote-bank. In our election agenda driven nation, that has had a distorting effect on policies. One wishes that the general takes up this cause in right earnest.

It is time that he forgets about his academic pursuits and instead joins politics to provide much needed leadership to the country starving for it. The political scene, both on the ruling and opposition side has never been so dismal in last 60 years.

There is a terrible dearth of leaders of stature and capability. Instead of leaders what we have (with very few exceptions) are dynasties and petty caste leaders. Political parties have began to resemble family business concerns, this is surely not democracy.

We have never had retired service chiefs succeed in politics. Will General Singh break this glass ceiling?

An Article by Col Dr Anil Athale.


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