Friday, 1 June 2012

A general’s unforgettable legacy
Ali Ahmed on where Chief of Army Staff Gen VK Singh leaves army-related issues on 31 May

IF A PARTY was to be held in South Block on the day the chief dons civvies, on 31 May to be precise, it would be understandable. He has exposed the underbelly of the ministry’s procurement system in going public with the Tatra bribe offer; disrobed the Defence Estates’ civilians over misappropriation of land in the Adarsh scam; and by bluntly referring to the ‘hollowness’ of his force, has shown up the bureaucrats as the stumbling block within. He may well go down in history for the chasm inadvertently revealed between the ministry and the military, in his supposed ‘spooking’ of the ministry through unprogrammed military movements.
To his detractors, he would be remembered for his self-interested exertions to extend his tenure into the next year by the unprecedented dragging of the government to the Supreme Court. Even well-wishers in the Army and in civil society cringe at the implicit suggestion that at least one of his predecessors was communal, favouring his community in a proverbial ‘succession’ list, and that at least two of his predecessors were corrupt.
And now, his swan song. The general appears to have attempted the last-minute sabotage of the career of one of his successors, who stood to gain by the alleged manipulation of the general’s date of brith in his showcause notice this week to the 3 Corps commander on a botched intelligence operation. The unfortunate implication — that in doing so he may firstly be exhibiting a communal prejudice of his own, and secondly, be helping someone as yet unidentified who he is more inclined towards thereby furthering the malady — seems to escape him.
However, his lasting legacy would be in his fight to get his brainchild through, that of getting the government to accept an expansion on the China front by a mountain strike corps comprising two specialised divisions amounting to another 86,000 troops. This has been his handiwork beginning with his study report on the army’s ‘transformation’ in his previous appointment as Eastern Army Commander.
At least some of the impetus of his differences with the bureaucracy owed to the government’s going slow on this proposal. It had earlier cited the downslide in the economy to undercut it. In the event, the leak of his letter to the prime minister — part of the wider mudslinging match between the two institutional sides — resulted in the parliamentary committee’s endorsement and the government’s acceding to the expansion at the Unified Commanders conference.
While security concerns have been deployed for legitimising the expansion, the factor of institutional interest is intrinsic. A way the army can continue setting the agenda in face of big ticket purchases impacting relative salience of the services, such as the MMRCA, the Vikramaditya and Arihant etc, is through gaining a strike corps. For a chief to have gone out on a limb to progress this amounts to an investment in not only a legacy but also a future.
His pro-Anna campaign remarks of last year have already elicited an invite from the Anna campaign to join up. Further, the chief’s ending of his tenure in a flurry of addresses at ex-servicemen rallies provides a clue on his motives, since, incidentally, ESM are the lookout of a civilian department within the ministry. Given that the chief has blown any chance of a post-retirement sinecure from the government, he has taken care to create a constituency for himself. Since recruitment will benefit traditional recruiting areas, the Chief has single-handedly gifted these communities a lifeline.
BUT GERMANE to the legacy is the strategic course he has set India on. The mountain strike corps follows raisings of two mountain divisions in a defensive role. This means that India’s erstwhile posture of ‘dissuasive deterrence’ on the China front is firmed in. However, the military thrust lately has been towards an ‘active deterrence’ posture. This means adding offensive punch.
This is of a piece with India’s proactive and offensive posture on the Pakistan front, exemplified by the ‘Cold Start’ doctrine. Though the general had earlier placed the doctrine in cold storage by disavowing from it, he backtracked at the peak of his DOB crisis on Army Day by saying that it remains on the cards.
Whether this helps Indian security is moot. The jury will have to consider whether this generates an avoidable security dilemma between neighbours. Theory has it that even defensive exertions can lead to an action-reaction arms race cycle, that can precipitate the conflict they are designed to deter. The ‘two front’ scenario is crystallising, not least by India’s actions.
The general in setting off a self-fulfilling prophecy is set to have the satisfaction of saying while fading away, ‘I told you so!’
Ali Ahmed is Assistant Professor, Jamia Millia Islamia