Indians wearied by a litany of corruption scandals and failures of government in recent years have been able to take comfort in the fact that one national institution – the armed forces – remained unbesmirched, its reputation for efficiency and integrity intact.
No longer. Leaked secret memos, million-dollar bribe allegations, a "near-coup experience" and a bizarre dispute over the army chief's birthday have badly tarnished the image of the 1.3 million-member fighting force that controls nuclear weapons in a volatile region.
"We have never seen in the last 64 years of post-independent India's military history any event even remotely resembling what we have seen in the last eight to 10 months," Ashok Mehta, a retired army major-general and defence analyst, said with a sigh.
The military occupies a venerated position in this democracy. The institution is the embodiment of patriotism and national sentiment, celebrated in a massive outpouring of affection at huge military parades on Republic Day every year. But the embarrassing goings-on have diminished that aura in recent months, and now the heads of the three branches of the forces have been summoned to appear before Parliament on Friday to account for the disarray.
The latest and most sensational twist in this story came in a front page story in the influential Indian Express detailing how, one night in January, two infantry units moved towards the capital from two directions without first alerting the defence ministry as is protocol. The troop actions were spotted by civilian intelligence agencies and so rattled the government that it faked a terrorism alert in order to put up traffic blockades sealing off the capital.
The government has categorically denied there were any unauthorized troop movements, characterizing them instead as routine drills, and the Express has backed away from its broad hints at a coup. (While no one in the world's largest democracy can quite bear to say that word, defence analyst Ajai Shukla has coined the term "near-coup experience."). But no one disputes the newspaper's larger point – that the stir caused by the military movements that night reveal a disturbing rift between the military command and the government.
Even before the coup rumours were published two weeks ago, it was no secret that relations were strained. In a letter dated March 12 and leaked at the end of the month, Army Chief of Staff General Vijay Kumar Singh wrote to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh decrying the sorry state of his fighting forces. Indian media reported that because of procurement problems the letter said that the army was desperately short of munitions, particularly for its tanks, and of crew-served weapons; that it lacked night-fighting capabilities; that its air defence is "97 per cent obsolete;" and is, all-in-all, poorly equipped to face an increasingly muscular Chinese military arrayed along the two countries' shared border. That letter made its way into the hands of the Indian media.
Parliament erupted, with the opposition decrying a serious risk to national security. The information in the letter was not a big secret – defence experts have been warning that procurement processes are stalled because of increased scrutiny on corruption. But pundits muttered about the glee with which all this must be being received over the border in Pakistan.
At the same time, Gen. Singh told a journalist late last month that he had been offered a bribe of 140-million rupees (C$2.7-million) to clear a contract for 600 sub-standard trucks last year. He said he had reported the bribe to Defence Minister A. K. Anthony, who had not taken action.
This allegation was particularly damaging because the central government is under siege over allegations of corruption and in particular over its failure to take action to stop it.
Mr. Anthony countered that when he was told of the bribe, he wanted to pursue a criminal investigation but the general prevented him from doing so. The Central Bureau of Investigation has opened a case.
At the root of all this, many observers believe, is a startling dispute over the army Chief of Staff's date of birth. There are two different birth dates listed in his military records, one in 1950 and one a year later. If the earlier one is correct, he will be obliged to leave office in six weeks, when he turns 62. The general, since taking office, has worked hard to have the later date accepted, but the government refused.
So in January, he took the extraordinary step of taking the government he is sworn to defend to the Supreme Court over the issue. The court quickly sided with the government, rejecting the general's petition.
It was late in the night before that court hearing that the infantry units set out for Delhi.
The pattern is such that the general's personal motivations have emerged as the leading theory to explain all of the recent developments. Gen. Singh is a distinguished veteran of India's 1971 war with Pakistan and was a stalwart but unremarkable figure until recently. But to many observers, it seems that having won the top job, he is loathe to leave it.
"He's lost the plot in the last year," said Maj.-Gen. Mehta. "This is the last ditch effort of a man who is saying 'I haven't got what I wanted' – the act of a man in despair, saying 'if I'm going down why don't I take a few others down with me.'"
Others, however, take a more sympathetic view. Mr. Shukla, the retired army officer who now serves as strategic affairs editor for a leading publication, called the general's birthday battle "silly" and regrettable because it has eroded his credibility, but said that the furor has obscured the fact that he was taking on the civilian leadership over critical issues.
"Chiefs one after another have quietly accepted everything that the Ministry of Defence didn't do," he said. "But now you have a chief who, whatever be the motivation, is taking on the government on important issues like corruption, procurement and transformation of the force."
The national reverence for India's military is the product of hagiography over the four wars fought since independence; the sense of being protected from the growing chaos of Pakistan on the western border; the pride in international respect for its armed forces military; and the professionalism with which the armed forces operate in an often-dysfunctional state.
It has a unique administrative setup, with a separate civilian command staffed entirely with civil servants – a legacy of mistrust on the government side of the military in the early years after Independence when coups rippled across South Asia. Relations have remained unnecessarily fraught, said Mr. Shukla, with the so-called non-coup an example of the deep mutual mistrust.
Retired Major-General Dipankar Banerjee, who heads the Institute for Peace and Conflict Studies, predicted that drama with the general may continue beyond his departure in May but in the larger scheme is no cause for alarm.
"This episode is embarrassing," he said. "But it is not strategically threatening."