General Singh Pays for Integrity
Image Credit: Uniphoto Press

General Singh Pays for Integrity


Lutyensway (sometimes known as Lutyens Bungalow Zone) India’s own version of the Washington D.C. Beltway, has split into two factions: one rooting for Chief of Army Staff Gen. V. K. Singh, and the other wanting him to go the way of Muammar Gaddafi.

Most of the Indian public seems sympathetic to the general’s lament that purchases of defense equipment in India are carried out through an opaque process and – surprise, surprise – may involve bribes. However, those who are or were involved in the business of government, whether as ministers or as officials, seem to be of the view that the Army Chief has “gone berserk,” in the words of retired diplomat Brajesh Mishra, who was passed over for promotion by Indira Gandhi in the 1980s but who was appointed National Security Advisor and Principal Secretary to Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee in 1998.

Mishra is contemptuous of Defense Minister A. K. Antony’s refusal to sack the army chief, and points to the Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance decision in 1998 to sack then-Chief of Naval Staff Vishnu Bhagwat “for insubordination.” That was the only sacking of the chief of a wing of the military by a civilian government, and ushered in a repeat of the 1959 to 1962 period, when military advice was ignored in favor of “broader” considerations, a situation that continues to this day. Adm. Bhagwat had doubts about the suitability of Vice Admiral Harinder Singh to be appointed his deputy, and made his doubts known in public.  The naval chief was less outspoken on his view that more attention needed to be paid to indigenization of naval production, including through the involvement of domestic private industry. Such views angered the lobbies within the government that sought a continuation of the partnership between government and foreign suppliers that had made India the largest defense market in the world, despite its poverty-stricken population and substantial domestic scientific and manufacturing capacity.

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In private, Bhagwat also expressed doubts about the integrity of Singh, who had the support of powerful lobbies in Lutyensway. Politics is expensive in India, and so is the foreign travel and education for the offspring of India’s officials. Bhagwat’s call for the domestic manufacture of naval craft and equipment, not by the visibly incompetent state sector but by private players, was subversive of the symbiotic relationship between state-owned enterprises and designated foreign suppliers, which generated so much business in offshore banking havens.

As for the admiral’s plea that honesty ought to be a requisite for high military office, this was even more damaging to the established order, where each layer of decision-making took home a slice of the pie. National Security Advisor Brajesh Mishra and his political masters were clear that Bhagwat had to be shown the door before he could challenge the status quo in military procurement. After that, if any chief of an armed service opposed any of the decisions foisted on him by politicians and their civil service subordinates, protests were mouthed in silence. That is, until V.K. Singh came along.

In India, neither merit nor wealth determines promotion in the higher ranks of the military, judiciary or administration, but the calendar. Appointments are made based on the age of the person selected. A previous Chief of Army Staff, Gen. J.J. Singh, ensured that the succession would go first to a close friend, Gen. Deepak Kapoor. After that, Gen. V.K. Singh’s tenure could be shortened by a third by “persuading” the general to increase his age by a year as a condition for being recommended as chief. According to V .K. Singh, he agreed to this only as a temporary measure, no doubt expecting that his original date of birth (recorded in the hospital where he was born) would be restored after he took over the top job in the Army in 2010. Unfortunately for him, the general made the same mistakes as Bhagwat in undertaking a cleanup operation at Army HQ and GHQ. Gen. Singh was an inconvenience to the system, a fact which caused many to conclude that he had to go.

Singh clearly doesn’t want his predecessor's favorite, Lt-Gen. Bikramjit Singh, to succeed him as Army chief. After Bikramjit, another acolyte of J.J. Singh, Lt-Gen. Dalbir Suhag, will take over as Commander of the Armed Services (COAS). That J.J. Singh, Bikramjit Singh and Suhag are all three members of India’s tiny but influential Sikh community (Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, is himself one) has injected a communal color to the controversy. In fact there are allegations that J.J. Singh engineered the date of birth controversy to ensure that his two fellow Sikhs follow V.K. Singh into the post of COAS. However, it needs to be said that the Sikh community is among the most vibrant in the country, and it’s impossible to count the number of sacrifices made by Sikh soldiers in defense of India.

The Defense Ministry would have been well advised to correct the (newly enforced) date of birth of Gen. V. K. Singh, but as in the case of Bhagwat, the general has made himself a target of international arms dealers, who see his insistence on high ethical standards and action against corrupt military officers as a danger to long-established monopolies. Defense Minister Antony, never one to challenge the interests of the political class or the recommendations of his officials, went along with their decision to cut short Singh’s tenure. The result has been Armsgate, a scam whose stain has only just begun to spread.

And what of Brajesh Mishra, who had more than a finger in several defense decisions during 1998 to 2004? This is the man who as national security advisor allowed the Pakistan Army to build concrete bunkers in Indian-held territory during 1998 to 99, and refuse to take action against the military and intelligence chiefs responsible for sleeping on their watch during the 11 months when the Kargil heights were being infiltrated by Pakistan army units. Indeed, the then-chief of army staff was on a visit to Poland when a brigadier blew the whistle on the incursion. The brigadier was subsequently sacked for his whistle-blowing, while the first step taken by the general – if my army sources are correct – was to ensure that his son got posted out of the country on a U.N. assignment, and therefore out of harm’s way.

Mishra also took no action against then COAS Gen. V.P. Malik, nor other generals such as N.C. Vij, who effectively allowed the incursion to take place. Nor did he enquire why the Leh-Manali road remained unoperational throughout the brief 1999 conflict that cost 1,300 Indian lives before the Pakistanis were ejected from their posts. Indeed, it was Mishra who as national security advisor allowed the hijackers of IC 814 to escape on December 24, 1999 after it landed in Amritsar, and he was responsible for two disastrous unilateral ceasefires in Kashmir in subsequent years that allowed Pakistan-trained terror groups to regroup in the Valley and kill several hundred more innocents as a consequence.

Clearly, allowing the Pakistan army to occupy strategic frontier heights is not an offense, but fighting for probity is. Small wonder that he and others equally fortunate want Gen. V. K. Singh to go the way of Admiral Bhagwat.

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