01/18/2012 11:11 am ET Updated Mar 19, 2012

General in His Labyrinth

Celebrated Prussian military analyst Carl von Clausewitz described how the "fog of war" causes facts to be fudged. Indian army chief General V.K. Singh has surely studied von Clausewitz. How then has he allowed himself and his force to become embroiled in fuzzy mathematics over the churlish matter of his age, that too in peacetime?

V.K.'s predicament stems from three sources: (a) the contentious circumstances of his appointment as chief in 2010, (b) the resentment that many army personnel feel towards the neta-babu nexus, and perhaps most significantly, (c) V.K.'s tendency to shoot from the lip.

V.K. became chief against the wish of his immediate predecessor, General Deepak Kapoor. As Kapoor's subordinate. He had recommended probing the alleged corruption of one of Kapoor's pet staff officers, effrontery that would have stymied most military careers. Fortunately for him, Defense Minister A.K. Antony took his side, and what is more, got him the top job.

At this time, the discrepancy in his age records was noticed, but the matter was seemingly laid to rest. Kapoor's tenure had been controversial enough, and the government wanted to move on. The handing-taking over ceremony between Kapoor and VK Singh, normally a bear-hugging affair between an outgoing chief and an incoming one, was so frigid, it might as well have occurred on the Siachen glacier. "War of the Generals," shrieked the headlines.

Shortly afterwards, Kapoor was accused of misappropriating prime property in Mumbai when he was still chief. V.K. proclaimed on national television that Kapoor's behavior had shamed the army. Quick to implicate, V.K. forgot about the principle of presumption of innocence. Another cardinal rule, of a serving chief refraining from publicly condemning his predecessors, too was violated. Kapoor met A.K. Antony to clear his name, and while V.K. threatened to court-martial Kapoor, the government let the matter die.

If 2010 was bad for Manmohan Singh, 2011 was annus horribilis. Anna Hazare galvanized the nation's anti-corruption rage into a gale, leaving Manmohan Singh teetering. Anna became a four-letter word for the government. V.K., unable to contain himself, came out in public support of Anna. Little did he realize then that he had just cooked his own goose.

If Indira Gandhi had been prime minister, loose lips as his would have been sealed quickly. Manmohan Singh is more deliberate. Behind wispy facial hair though, there are some fangs for sure, to be bared only every few years, as he did while pushing for India's nuclear deal, or when he thwarted a nation baying for Pakistani blood after 26/11.

After becoming chief, V.K. sought a correction, from 1950 to 1951, to his date of birth. If granted, he would have secured an additional ten months of service. But even his benefactor, A.K. Antony, was becoming wary. V.K.'s request was turned down. He filed a formal complaint, which too was rejected. By now, the soap opera of age, starring birth certificates, enrollment forms, claims, counter-claims, had become all the rage.

Two camps pitted heads. On the one side were the retired army officers, who, almost to a man, supported VK. A question of izzat, they fumed through their handlebar moustaches. Ranged against them were the pot-bellied politicians and Indian Administrative Service bureaucrats, who cited chapter and verse of rules and lines of succession.

Many in India's military chafe at what they consider as shackles imposed upon them by the 'bloody civilians'. It galls them that the army chief, head of the world's second-largest army, is ranked 12 in the order of precedence of Indian officialdom, all the way down from 2 in pre-independence India. It rankles them when they see the coveted privileges enjoyed by armies to their west (Pakistan), north (China), east (Bangladesh, Myanmar), or south (Sri Lanka).

Pakistan's "womb to tomb" army culture is markedly absent in India, with officers often put to pasture in the prime of their lives, ill-equipped to cope with civilian life's wheeling and dealing. So unattractive has the career become that India's army faces a lacuna of over 10,000 officers, almost a quarter of desired strength.

Since Nehru's time, the government, fearful of a coup, has kept the army on a tight leash. Once in a while a charismatic army chief comes along, as was the case with K. Sundarji. His over-exuberance though almost precipitated a war with Pakistan, as well as nudged Rajiv Gandhi, then prime minister, into a catastrophic misadventure in Sri Lanka, for which the latter paid for with his life subsequently. Even as India's military seeks to break free, many abroad hail how assiduously the civilian government has tethered it.

"Don't treat me as if I am Pakistan's army chief," V.K. has reportedly wailed to his government. Rumors abound that Manmohan Singh talks directly to General Kayani. Surely he accords him due courtesy! Jokes apart, Manmohan Singh promises a makeover this year. He has issued an unprecedented New Year's resolution, and has visited the Golden Temple to steel himself.

Neither he, nor his patron, Sonia Gandhi, will allow an uppity general to waylay their plan for 2012, which is to ensure an orderly ascension to premiership for Rahul Gandhi. Successors to V.K. have already been shortlisted, five months before his tenure is to end, rendering him a virtual lame duck.

Instead of making veiled threats of going to court, which step would in all likelihood invite the sack, or resigning in a huff, it would be best if he were to declare the matter as closed, and treat it as so. And if, to sweeten the pill, the government offers him an ambassadorship or state governorship, he should decline. He took charge promising to restore the army's morale. Climbing down and bowing to his political masters is the only way out now.