Sunil Sharan Headshot

An Army Adrift

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The Indian army, once hailed for its professionalism, is fast losing its sheen. Previous chiefs must be turning in their graves at how the recent lot are turning upon one another.

The chief is venerated within the army. He is supposed to be a paragon of virtue. Military children grow up gawking at the portraits of chiefs in army installations. Civilians may order the chief into battle, but unless his men hear the clarion call from him, they will not issue forth. And once his tenure was over, he would pass on the baton with a bear hug, and seldom, if ever, utter a word in public against a predecessor or successor.

The current chief, Gen Bikram Singh, took over from V.K. Singh, and was expected to draw down the curtain on the latter's tumultuous tenure. Instead, Bikram's staff started investigating an undercover military unit that V.K. had set up. Their findings, which were submitted to the prime minister's office six months ago, have only now come into the public domain.

V.K. has been accused of spying on the defense minister, trying to topple the government of Indian Kashmir, scuttling Bikram's own appointment as army chief, and tarnishing the records of serving officers. The army has recommended a thorough probe of V.K. The charges are serious enough to invite his court martial.

Court martial. That is exactly what V.K. had threatened his predecessor, Deepak Kapoor, with, when the latter was suspected of having his hand in the till. Many an officer, in many a military, has contemplated suicide over the ignominy of facing a court martial. In India, where their predecessors refrained from even criticizing one another, chiefs are now freely waving the flag of court martial.

Just imagine what their officers and soldiers are talking about. That instead of focusing on the top job upon assumption, their head honcho goes after his previous boss. And they must ask why such wrongdoing is happening, and question its veracity.
Bikram was commissioned in 1972, which means that he has not seen action in a large-scale war. Nuclear deterrence ensures that unless things go horribly awry, a major war is not forthcoming. Officers can expect to have higher survival rates and longer careers than their predecessors.

Any army is all about camaraderie, and as any military man will tell you, war builds it like nothing else. In an extended time of relative peace, an army's espirit de corps can wane. Careerism begins to take hold.

Further, even though Indian military salaries have improved, they are substantially below those in the private sector. A roughly million-man army consequently faces a shortage of over ten thousand officers. Lifestyles only become good once the rank of brigadier is attained, and keep getting better thereafter. But the path to higher ranks is clogged because a big conflict, with its attendant attrition, has skipped a generation.

While the army has, in general, maintained high standards of probity, it is not insulated from the miasma of corruption pervading the country. With the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute estimating that India imported close to five billion dollars in arms in 2012, there are temptations galore for the military brass. Most resist, a few succumb.

Bikram might be right in pursuing V.K., but should a top-secret military operation have been revealed so unabashedly by the government? And why just days after V.K. shared centre stage with the Bharatiya Janata Party's prime ministerial candidate, Narendra Modi? Their carefully orchestrated bonhomie was lost on none. V.K. has exposed his political affiliation. Now it seems that the government wants to expose him.

The move might backfire. Both Modi and V.K., for all their shortcomings, have built a reputation for personal financial integrity. Modi is planning to make corruption, and how it is eroding India, the central plank of his general election campaign. The Congress, hobbled by venality, would be wise to duck the issue and focus elsewhere. By luring V.K. to his side, Modi is attempting to burnish himself. By going after V.K., the Congress risks just the opposite.

Hindsight may be 20:20 but Manmohan Singh has missed several opportunities to clip the wings of his generals. Deepak Kapoor and a couple of other ex-service chiefs had acquired properties that they were not entitled to, and returned them only after the media raised a storm. Pleading ignorance, the generals escaped governmental censure.

Then when V.K., during his ascent to chiefdom, continually questioned army records of his age, the civilians fretted over his suitability for the job, but overruled their own gut. Finally when V.K. took the government to court, an unprecedented action by a serving chief, they could have summarily dismissed him. Some in the army might have been miffed, but the country at large would not have brooked a general seen fighting a personal battle.

V.K. had lost the trust of the government when it denied his age claim. If he had demitted office then, he would have risen in most eyes. But his sense of injustice, and doggedness, led him to the Indian Supreme Court. Even when thwarted there, he stuck to his chair, giving and taking flak for months on end.

And what about Bikram? India's general elections are coming up this May; Bikram's tenure winds up at the end of August. Were Modi to become prime minister, and place V.K. in some position of authority over Bikram, say as defense minister or national security adviser, will the two keep locking horns?

Six years of wrangling at the top have demoralized a once-cohesive force. Future chiefs will have to follow in the footsteps of predecessors of yore, instead of those of more contemporary ones, if they wish to reverse the decline of their institution.