NEW DELHI: Weeks after the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) detected a ‘breach of protocol’ in troop movement towards Delhi in January — ordered ostensibly to check Army preparedness in foggy conditions — and prohibited the group of soldiers from moving further, Chief of Army Staff Gen V K Singh met Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.
The appointment was sought by Gen Singh, who also met defence minister A K Antony. After his meeting with Gen Singh, the PM consulted Antony about what to do.
Antony hastily said, “I will talk to him (Gen Singh).”
Top PMO sources said this was the nearest the government came to taking action against the Army chief.
The context of the meeting was a series of incidents, including the one reported in The Indian Express on Wednesday: That late on the night of January 16 (the day Gen Singh approached the Supreme Court on his date of birth issue), central intelligence agencies reported an unexpected (and non-notified) movement by a key military unit, from the mechanised infantry based in Hisar (Haryana) as a part of the 33rd Armoured Division (which is a part of 1 Corps, a strike formation based in Mathura and commanded by Lt Gen A K Singh) and the airborne 50 Para Brigade based at Agra in the direction of the capital, 150 km away.
The movement worried the government so much that Defence Secretary Shashi Kant Sharma asked Lt Gen A K Choudhary, Director General Military Operations, late at night to see him and explain what was going on. The Prime Minister and the Defence Minister were informed. Police were put on alert. The word ‘coup’ has not been used anywhere in the report.
The Army on Wednesday described the The Indian Express report as “baseless”. The ministry of defence denied the report.
The Prime Minister made light of it but did not deny it. At a function, when asked by reporters about the incident, he said, “These are alarmist reports. They should not be taken at face value.” But, he also said, “The Army chief’s office is an exalted office. All of us have an obligation to do nothing that would lower its dignity.”
The government has drawn its own conclusions from the Army chief’s recent public statements: the fact that he used words like ‘rogue elements’ and ‘schism’ to describe the dissonance between him and the government, phraseology typically used in military activism.
Government sources said the best construction that could be put on the January 16/17 incident was that “someone made a mistake”.
To give the Army chief the benefit of the doubt, Antony has defended him time and again. Last month, Rajya Sabha debated the issue of the letter written by the chief to the Prime Minister, citing serious defence deficiencies. In his speech, leader of the Opposition in the Upper House, Arun Jaitley virtually exonerated the defence minister of responsibility in the conduct of the Army chief. Leaders were puzzled and confused when, after the debate, Antony walked up to Jaitley and thanked him fervently with tears in his eyes, for “upholding my dignity”.
The Congress party on Wednesday said the The Indian Express report was exaggerated. However, off the record, the party maintains the facts cited in the report cannot be questioned. This is also the position of all top government officials, who however say it would be a mistake to derive from the sequence of events that the Army had attempted a coup.