All that has happened since the eruption of the controversy over the age of the Chief of Army Staff, General V. K. Singh, has had one unintended effect: It has been public education on a massive scale on the delicate nature of the relations in a democracy between the head of the Army and the political leadership, assisted by the civilian bureaucracy of the Ministry of Defence.
Indeed, democracy or not, it is a given that this unique relationship is ever in a state of dynamic equilibrium, liable to be unsettled by any attempt on the part of either side of the equation to overreach itself.
In such an eventuality, the presumption of the armed forces being subject to civilian control in a democratic dispensation cannot invariably be counted on to come to the rescue and restore the balance.
For, the exact degree of that control depends upon the traditions in which the country has been nurtured, the respect and credibility commanded by the political-cum-civilian authority, the acceptance it enjoys among the people, the quality of governance it has been able to provide, and its strength of purpose and will.
The commonly encountered trait of any entity required to be under the control of another is to keep testing the sharpness of the latter’s reflexes and limits of tolerance, and its power to resist and rebuff challenges to its authority.
Unless, at the first sign of such a challenge, the controlling entity meets it convincingly and without the least suspicion of wavering or weakness, it will become tempting target for attempts aimed at further whittling down of its authority.
Hence, the effectiveness of civilian control over Defence forces is not something that derives automatically from any theoretical postulate but from the net impact of the strengths and weaknesses of civilian and political establishments, as gauged from the day-to-day experience of their responses to subtle deviations from the norm.
All that said, the build-up given to the particular instances concerning the Army Chief and the Government was, in my view, excessive.
Anyone who has served in the Government, and particularly in the Ministry of Defence, would know that there is nothing out of the ordinary about them.
For instance, every department or enterprise under the Central and State Governments receives and deals every year with scores of applications of various grades of employees on the eve of retirement for change of dates of birth to their advantage, pleading mistakes of one kind or another.
Many of the persons aggrieved by the Government’s decision seek judicial intervention as well.
Likewise, Defence Chiefs are duty bound to keep the Government at the highest levels posted with whatever compromises full Defence preparedness.
Jagjivan Ram, Y. B. Chavan and R.Venkataraman, as Defence Ministers, used to have daily meetings with the Defence Chiefs, and ensure that the bureaucrats in the Ministry did not sit over files.
As one who dealt with issues of internal security in the Ministry of Home Affairs and was a member of the Joint Intelligence Committee, I can confirm that the different formations of the Defence Forces undertake regular exercises so as to keep themselves in top gear under all foreseeable circumstances, and since these were already approved routine procedures, there was no question of any prior intimation to the Government.
And, finally, on the offer of a bribe to the General, he immediately informed the Defence Minister, but each seemed to have left it to the other to follow it up with investigation.
This was certainly an error of judgment. In Gen.V. K. Singh’s case, it caused snide remarks because of his making it public so long after the event, though there may be nothing to it more than his wanting to put the public wise to the sinister side of procurement.
All these episodes will have to be viewed in perspective and should not be portrayed as if they were a part of a deliberately launched war of nerves by the General. They were nothing of the sort. But there is a caveat.
They indisputably have raised the profile of the Chief of the senior-most of the three Defence Services and it could well be the start of a trend encouraging future Chiefs to further increase their leverage.