How did an outstanding General become the most polarising Chief of Staff in the Indian Army’s history? Brijesh Pandey on the war games that threaten our defence establishment
KITCHENER VERSUS Curzon, Thimayya versus Krishna Menon, Vishnu Bhagwat versus George Fernandes and now VK Singh versus AK Antony and Manmohan Singh: in the past century, these have been the biggest military commander-political boss battles in Indian history. In each case conditions have been different. Kitchener was a crafty man who conspired against his viceroy and finished his career in India. Thimayya, a noble and much loved soldier, was reduced to a caricature by Krishna Menon and more so by Jawaharlal Nehru who turned down his resignation but refused to save him from a difficult defence minister. On his part, Bhagwat was cussed. Like Kitchener he demanded autonomy in appointing his subordinate naval commanders, more autonomy than any civilian authority would give him. He ran a public campaign and paid for it.
Which of these templates suits VK Singh, the chief of army staff and general of the 1.3-million-strong Indian Army who has just declared war on his government? It can safely be predicted that he is not viewed as a Thimayya, a gentleman general who is still honoured by military historians. Yet is Singh, reputed to be a financially honest officer in a time when the military brass has come under scrutiny on matters of integrity, the villain of the piece — or is he just a proud-to-the-point-of-stubborn soldier who lost his head? The army, a public institution with a very private code of honour, is still trying to make up its mind.
The mood wasn’t always so grey. In fact when General Singh fought and asked the government to clarify its position on his year of birth — 1950 or 1951 — he was the subject of sympathy. Many believed that he was indeed born in 1951 but that army records had deliberately not been corrected by some of his predecessors to ensure he retired in May 2012 and not a year later. This was done, it was said, to ensure a certain line of succession to the top job in the Indian Army.
When Singh’s letter to the Defence Ministry — just before he moved the Supreme Court — was replied to by a minor bureaucrat who snubbed the army chief and rejected his age claim, there was actually much disquiet in military circles. Has civilian control of the army come to this — a point where the general of the Indian Army could be shoved aside by a small-time bureaucrat?
Today that disquiet has gone. Rather there is a sense of exasperation. Singh’s claim that in 2010 he was offered a bribe by a retired army officer, Lt General Tejinder Singh, caused a controversy when he said he told Defence Minister Antony about it but the latter did not act. What defies explanation is that Singh himself kept quiet about it for two years, neither filing a written complaint nor informing a police authority.
Next, on March 12, Singh wrote a letter to the prime minister arguing that the army was severely incapacitated and not in position to defend the country should there be a war. This top-secret letter then made it to the press, only intensifying the conflict between the general and the government that appointed him. If it is established the general leaked the letter, his sacking is inevitable. If the prime minister’s office leaked the letter to discredit the general — some of the points he makes in the letter are grossly exaggerated, military veterans say — then the breakdown of the civilian-army HQ relationship is alarming.
Where lies the truth? Who is India to believe?
LET US begin with the bribery allegation. On March 26, Singh told The Hindu newspaper that a retired three-star general had come to his office and offered him a Rs 14 crore bribe to clear further purchase of Tatra trucks. Singh said he was flabbergasted and found it hard to comprehend what was happening, eventually asking his visitor to get out of his office. Singh then told Antony about the incident, something Antony admitted in Parliament where he identified the alleged bribe giver as Tejinder Singh.
So why didn’t Antony, a politician who prides himself on his honesty, take action against Tejinder Singh? This is where the links don’t match. The defence minister says he asked the army chief to take action but that VK Singh said he did not want to pursue the case. Neither did he give a complaint in writing. This was strange. Stranger still was Antony’s response. What prevented him from ordering an investigation on the basis of an oral complaint?
Speaking to TEHELKA, Antony offered a weak defence: “Yes, I was under tremendous tension for the past two days. Now … I’m cool. It was the first time there was an allegation directly hitting me. And it was levelled by none other than the army chief who is going to retire soon. Even today I don’t know why he did it. But his allegations had damaged the image of our defence forces. He put the pride of our country at stake.”
The defence minister was not quite innocent. There is a back-story to Singh’s Hindu interview. It came after what one retired general close to Singh called “incessant sniper fire” from the defence ministry bureaucracy and its factionalists in the army. On 16 February, a military intelligence officer is believed to have alerted officials about Antony’s office being bugged. A section began to leak stories to the media hinting that the army chief was responsible for this. Singh was hurt and the army was asked to issue an unusual press release: “The present [eavesdropping] story has been put out by Lt Gen (retd) Tejinder Singh, who was the ex DG-DIA, and who has been earlier questioned on the purchase of the ‘off-air monitoring system’ without sanction by the technically empowered committee. This officer has also been an allottee in Adarsh Housing Society in Mumbai and has also offered bribe on behalf of Tatra and Vectra Ltd, which supplies vehicles to BEML. The officer along with some disgruntled serving officers of the Military Intelligence, against whom administrative actions are in the process, has worked out this fictitious story.”
This press release was not a clarification but a counter-charge. Less than a month later, it was revealed that the bribe offer was made to the army chief himself, and that Tejinder Singh, former director-general (DG) of the Defence Intelligence Agency (DIA) was charged with being a defence equipment agent. Tejinder hit back by filing defamation case against the army chief. The two may be sworn enemies today but they too have a history, or so goes the cantonment grapevine.
Tejinder joined the army in 1970, a year after VK Singh. Before becoming DG, DIA, he was area commander of Gujarat, Maharashtra and Goa. He was allotted a flat in the infamous Adarsh Society in Mumbai, where army officers and politicians stole land meant to house Kargil war widows.
Tejinder is believed to have been close to General JJ Singh and General Deepak Kapoor, the two immediate past army chiefs. JJ Singh made him commander in Mumbai and Kapoor, who had a cold war with VK Singh, brought him in as head of the DIA. Tejinder retired in June 2010. He was in the running for the post of chief of the powerful National Technical Research Organisation (NTRO) but failed to get it due to the Adarsh aftermath.
Tejinder has not denied meeting VK Singh in 2010. His friends say he had gone to lobby for the NTRO job and in turn offered to help Singh get his date of birth issues sorted out, leveraging some of his political connections. This might explain some of VK Singh’s inexplicable reluctance to move against him on the alleged bribe, though as of now there is no direct link between Tejinder and Tatra Vectra Motors, which manufactures Tatra trucks in Hosur. Tejinder claims he runs two consultancy companies.
Tejinder has a reputation for being influential. Married into a politically connected Punjabi family, he escaped the Adarsh episode as well as the serious charge that he had over-spent in getting his house refurbished while he was posted in Mumbai. When an anonymous complaint reached the Ministry of Defence, JJ Singh, then chief, neutralised it.
Speaking to TEHELKA, Tejinder was copybook correctness: “I completely deny all the allegations levelled against me by the army. I don’t work for the Tatra company and I will file criminal defamation against all the persons involved for naming me in the press release.”
SOON THERE was another twist to the tale. Within hours of the defence minister’s statement in Parliament, Colonel (retd) RSN Singh, formerly of the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW, India’s external secret service), said there was an audio recording of the bribe offer and the conversation in 2010 between Tejinder and the army chief. If this were true, it made Singh’s position even more puzzling? Why had he recorded the conversation?
Army chiefs cannot be visited by just anybody. There is an elaborate protocol and it is breached only for professional and personal friends of long standing. If VK Singh agreed to meet Tejinder, he must have felt a comfort level. Why then had he decided to record the conversation? Was there some premonition? Also, if the evidence was available, why had Singh not cited or used it?
Retired army officers don’t doubt the honesty of VK Singh. They are, however, talking of his rivalry with Deepak Kapoor, who had cleared the last tranche of 768 Tatra trucks. Before Singh became army commander (a pre-requisite for becoming COAS), his conflicting age issue was a problem. Kapoor did not accept Singh’s claim that he was born in 1951 and told Singh if he did not accede to the 1950 date in writing he would be denied a promotion and a shot at the chief’s job. Singh swallowed his pride but waited to get back.
On becoming commander, Singh sought to be named vice-chief and serve under Kapoor in New Delhi. This would give him leverage in the capital when Kapoor retired and ensure the succession. Kapoor had other ideas. He wanted to make Lt General PC Bhardwaj the vice-chief and position him for the top job.
A precedent was dug up. In 1983, Indira Gandhi had superseded SK Sinha, the then vice-chief, and appointed Arun Vaidya as the army chief. The reason was the then prime minister distrusted Sinha’s independence and felt he was not pliant enough. The logic offered was that Vaidya was a better, more decorated soldier. As it happened, Bhardwaj had won a Vir Chakra and was more decorated than Singh.
Singh, a commando by training and at the time chief of the Eastern Command in Kolkata, hit back by cracking down on two of Kapoor’s officers — Lt Gen PK Rath and Kapoor’s military secretary, Avadesh Prakash. They were court-martialled for their role in secretly selling off army land in Sukna, Darjeeling, to a property developer. Kapoor was angry but couldn’t do much. Singh used this episode to establish himself as General Clean-up — the man who would stand up to corruption in the army. After the Sukna affair, the government could not deny VK Singh the army chief ’s job and not arouse public suspicion.
Yet old ghosts still haunted the Army HQ. Tejinder — who is believed to have a Bhiwani connection with VK Singh, a Rajput who hails from that small town in Haryana — is also supposed to be close to Kapoor. Did this arouse suspicions in Singh and lead to him turning the conversation in his office with Tejinder into what in retrospect would seem a sting operation?
WHY WAS the Tatra deal so important for Tejinder or whoever was trying to influence the army chief in 2010? Here too some background is called for. The all-terrain, all-weather Tatra trucks have been carrying the army, literally, for 25 years now. The first agreement was signed in 1986, in the Cold War years, with Omnipol, the Czechoslovakian company that made the trucks.
About three years later, the Eastern Bloc collapsed and Czechoslovakia itself dismembered into the Czech Republic and Slovakia. The future of Tatra truck supplies to the Indian Army was in doubt. Ravi Rishi, an NRI businessman, bought Tatra through his London-based company Vectra. In 1992, the Indian public sector company BEML started buying trucks from Tatra Sipox in the United Kingdom and giving them to the army.
What was ignored, perhaps deliberately, was that Tatra Sipox was a London-based trading company and not an original manufacturer. This was in direct conflict with the principal defence-purchase rule in India — you buy from the manufacturer, not some intermediary. Later the holding pattern of the company changed again, and BEML signed a joint venture agreement with Tata Vectra, with Rishi as majority shareholder. As per the modalities of this 2003 agreement, the army chief had to okay the Tatra procurement deal each year. The last deal was signed in 2010, after Deepak Kapoor’s assent.
When VK Singh took over, he refused to play ball and announced annulment of the Tatra deal. He said the truck was overpriced and not performing well. A rival manufacturer, Ural India, was promising a truck for Rs 40 lakh, about half of Tatra’s price. Besides, Ashok Leyland and Tata Motors were also announcing plans for making all-weather, all-terrain trucks for the Indian Army.
As such, Tatra had enough reason to do its utmost to get VK Singh to change his mind.
WHILE THE defence ministry was trying to defuse the bribe bomb, on 28 March came the letter bomb. General VK Singh’s letter to the prime minister painted a doomsday scenario. “The army’s entire tank fleet was devoid of critical ammunition,” the DNA newspaper quoted the letter as saying, “to defeat enemy tanks. The air defence was 97 percent obsolete and it doesn’t give the deemed confidence to protect from the air. Not only this, the infantry had deficiencies of the crew-served weapon and lacks night fighting capabilities. Not only this, the elite Special Forces were woefully short of essential weapons.” The army chief asked the PM to “pass on suitable directions to enhance the preparedness of the army and… [warned] the hollowness in the system is a manifestation of the procedure as well as legal impediments by vendors.”
The leak of such a sensitive letter to the media, on a day when the Chinese president was in India for the BRICS summit, left the political class fuming. It also caused anguish in some sober military and analytical circles. This incident could well cause Singh his job and be the difference between retirement and stormy sacking.
Nevertheless, is Singh right in his charges? Army specialists says much of what he’s saying is already in the public domain but by saying it out of context and sensationalising it he made it seem bigger than it was. For example, in saying 50 percent of tanks didn’t have night-vision, no guns had been bought after the Bofors deals of the mid-1980s and that the air defence equipment was old, Singh ignored statistical context. He bypassed the defence minister, wrote straight to the prime minister and left the nation scared.
The fact is, only 50 percent of Indian tanks have night-vision capability but every single T-90 tank posted on the Pakistan border does. The army’s air defence systems may be old, but the bulk (90 percent) of the air defence response rests with the air force.
As a military veteran sums up, “We are prepared to defend our borders. Claims that we are underprepared and heading towards a 1962-like situation are rubbish. What is leaked is only partial information.” Full information would entail an assessment of the perceived threat, the force allocation, the choice of border (Pakistan or China), the year of conflict modelling (2015, 2020 or 2030 for instance) and the objective (defence or deep penetration into enemy territory).” VK Singh had clearly mucked it up.
RETIRED ARMY generals agree it is high time the government looked into the whole procurement process of the army. According to Major General (retd) GD Bakshi, “For the past three decades, our defence acquisition has been slowed to a crawl, major arms equipment induction is taking 30 years. Bofors was in 1987, we have not got another medium gun since then… We have not been able to replace our helicopter seats for the past 30 years… Please see what the Chinese are doing. And what the Pakistanis are doing.”
Apart from equipment and weapons, the military also requires a structural modernisation. As a retired lieutenant general says, “The structure of the armed forces is ancient. Basically we are still working on the World War II structure.” In that sense, VK Singh is flagging the right issues — but should that letter have been leaked, irrespective of who leaked it?
This raises suspicions and nagging doubts about VK Singh, whose Rajput ancestry, Thakur caste affinities and potential political career have all been part of gossip this past week. The army has been the poorer for it. As such, not many are able to appreciate the real intentions of the army chief. Says one lieutenant general: “This man is doing all this out of spite and not an inner desire for reforms. If he had the inner desire for reforms he would have done it two years ago. Right now the motive of VK Singh is to embarrass the government and position himself in the public eye.”
Whether this is true or not, the fact remains Singh has become a polarising figure, the most polarising chief of staff in the Indian Army’s history. This makes the prospect of his sacking that much more realistic.
Pointing out the irony, a senior serving officer said, “What is most tragic is that after a long time we had an army chief of impeccable integrity and a defence minister nicknamed the ‘Saint’ for probity in public life. It is indeed very sad that the chief will be forever remembered as a man who fought just for his own honour and thought nothing of the institution that made him what he is.”
Those who love India and cherish its army will nod vigorously — and shed a tear in pain.
With inputs from Prakhar Jain and Shonali Ghosal
Brijesh Pandey is a Special Correspondent with Tehelka.