By Amulya Ganguli
Just as the plethora of scams showed that the presence of a decent individual at the head of the government does not guarantee its probity, the latest uproar over the army chief’s allegations is yet another proof that the defence minister’s personal integrity does not ensure either transparent deals or a robust army.
In accordance with the saying that nice men finish last, it can be argued that honesty and politeness in the higher echelons of governance – indeed, at all levels – should be combined with firmness, force of personality and ideological conviction. In the absence of these qualities, the time-servers and wheeler-dealers in the government and outside will have little difficulty in circumventing the rules and regulations.
In doing so, they will not only succeed in feathering their own nests, but also make the government pay a heavy political price by bringing it into disrepute. The Congress’s defeats in Tamil Nadu, Punjab and Goa are examples of this political downside of the failure to check the crooks. The decent individuals themselves may escape without a serious impairment of their reputation, but they are bound to be exposed as wimps who hold the reins of power with a limp hand. As a result, the popular trust in the ruling party is eroded, which the Congress is probably realizing.
The fallout from this debilitating process is that both Manmohan Singh and A.K. Antony have lost their earlier halos and are gradually turning into figures of fun. Since nothing hurts a person more than ridicule, it will not be easy for either of them to earn the respect which they earlier did. Instead, the images which will haunt them in the foreseeable future are that of Antony holding his bowed head in his hands – as he reportedly did when the army chief, Gen. V.K. Singh told him about the bribe offer which he had received – and in the prime minister’s case, the repeated denials that he is not a lame duck.
Of the two, Antony has suffered the unkindest cut. The reason is that while the charges of corruption faced by Andimuthu Raja, Suresh Kalmadi, Ashok Chavan and others have shown the prime minister to be weak-kneed, the revelation by Gen. Singh of the obsolescence of the armed forces has highlighted the defence minister’s inefficiency, as Admiral Vishnu Bhagwat, former chief of the naval staff, said on TV.
In public perception, corruption is the lesser of the two evils. After all, even if the government is reluctant to act against the villains in the name of coalition dharma, the Supreme Court is there to send them to jail. But, the absence of defence preparedness is a far more serious matter, especially when India faces two hostile neighbours in Pakistan and China. Antony himself gave a warning in 2010 of the nightmare scenario of a war on two fronts. Yet, he has let the armed forces run to seed.
Little wonder that the BJP has called for Antony’s resignation. The General’s allegations have been a godsend to the BJP since it had always accused the government of being feeble-minded about national security. The BJP’s original charge was that the government’s purported “softness” towards terrorism was the other side of its coin of “minority appeasement”. Now, this sin has been compounded by the debilitation of the army.
There is little doubt that in the event of an election being held in the near future, the Congress will suffer heavy reverses for having let down the country’s guard against Pakistan, which is “addicted” to terrorism, as an American official has said, and China, which may become involved in “proxy wars” with India, according to Jonathan Holslag, author of China and India: Prospects for Peace.
The Congress is lucky that the next general election is two years away. Moreover, for all the noise which the BJP is making, its own internal factionalism, accentuated by the weakening of the party chief, Nitin Gadkari’s position after the Rajya Sabha nominations fiasco in Jharkhand, and the fact that Narendra Modi is still sulking in Gujarat, make it extremely difficult for the party to present itself as a credible alternative.
As the 17 per cent hike in the defence budget shows, the government is aware of the need to bolster the armed forces. But, if it wants to secure immediate political dividends from the effort, it has to be a visible endeavour. Given the Congress’s genteel style, “Saint” Antony, as he is both derisively and admiringly called, is likely to continue as defence minister. After all, Jawaharlal Nehru was unwilling to remove Krishna Menon from the post even after the 1962 humiliation at the hands of the Chinese. But, if the furore over a “weak” army does not subside, there is no certainty as to what may happen with the approach of 2014. (IPA Service)