In denial

Army, govt must work on trust deficit, not stand on either side of a divide and praise each other

Reacting to this newspaper's report on the unusual movement of two key army units towards Delhi on the night of January 16-17, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has emphasised that the army chief is an "exalted office" and nothing should be done to "lower its dignity". Defence Minister A.K. Antony has asserted "confidence" in the "patriotism of the armed forces". Both statements are unexceptionable. Neither, however, addresses the trust deficit between the government and the army that comes out so starkly in the chain of events of that winter night reconstructed in The Indian Express investigation. How come two units moved without notification, when the settled protocol was that any military movement, at any time, in the National Capital Region has to be pre-notified to the ministry of defence? Then, why did alarm bells clang so loud in the top echelons of government, with the PM and the defence minister being informed and the defence secretary asked to cut short his visit to Malaysia? Why, if it was ascertained that the unexpected movement towards the capital was actually "routine", were the units then halted, sent back within hours? Answers to these questions should not be substituted by peremptory denials. Otherwise, they will linger. That would be unfortunate given that army chief General V.K. Singh is due to retire in a few weeks and there is an opportunity for a new beginning.

January 16 was the day General Singh had taken the unprecedented step of approaching the Supreme Court, asking it to step into his public confrontation with the government again a first-time tableau in India on the date of birth issue. Though that controversy was laid to rest by the court's intervention, a new round of hostilities was subsequently inaugurated between the two sides, with the army chief's revelations of an alleged bribe offer. It is not just that the mutual distrust between the two sets of actors has begun to appear irreparable. What is more worrisome is that it is beginning to infect an institutional poise that has always been delicate, but never precarious.

In India, there may have been instances of less than exemplary behaviour by individuals on both sides of the civil-military divide. There have been ego clashes, a murky narrative of suspicion of all defence deals has been propped up post-Bofors, and a confrontation between the Union government and the chief of naval staff led to the sacking of Admiral Vishnu Bhagwat in 1998. But what makes the present moment stand out is the protracted absence of judgement in the civil and military leadership, coupled with the dangerous anti-politics mood that has been building up over the past year or so. Before it begins to unsettle an unselfconscious confidence and a happy complacency in the checks and balances built into this country's institutions, both sides must accept that they need to start mending their frayed fabric. Denial, in the circumstances, is the wrong option.

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