Perhaps the most controversial tenure of any Indian Army chief ends Thursday when Gen V.K. Singh hangs up his boots after over 41 years of service. Much of his 26 months at the helm of a 1.13 million strong army were spent in publicly battling the civilian establishment and his own military rivals.
But the end of his term marks the beginning of a long path towards recovery from the mess that the institution called the Integrated Headquarters of the Ministry of Defence (Army) finds itself in.
What began as a promising tenure on April Fools’ Day in 2010 with V.K. Singh making the right noises about ‘improving the internal health’ of the army has now turned into unpleasant chapter that may be difficult to forget given the nature of the controversies — from a seemingly innocuous age row to the critical issue of defence preparedness.
‘Let him retire peacefully,’ is what Defence Minister A.K. Antony is believed to have told some defence ministry officials, upset over the latest controversy following V.K. Singh’s television interviews on his last weekend in office.
V.K. Singh, otherwise a very popular man in the forces who commend him for his uprightness, had blamed some sections of the defence ministry for planting stories in the media to fix him.
The wait for his retirement is expected to be over on May 31 forenoon, when V.K. Singh hands over the reins of the world’s second largest standing army after China to Lt. Gen. Bikram Singh, named successor in March this year.
V.K. Singh’s age row – whether he was born on May 10 in 1950 or 1951 – should have been a routine matter of little interest to anybody outside the establishment. But the issue went up all the way to the Supreme Court, which put an end to the row by virtually upholding the defence ministry decision on 1950.
Then came the bombshell of an allegation about retired lieutenant general Tejinder Singh offering a bribe of Rs.14 crore (RS 140 milllion) to clear an order for what the army chief called ‘substandard’ Tatra military trucks.
The bribery storm, first reported in a newspaper, came when the budget session of parliament was in progress. And the nation saw an emotional Antony defending himself — he had been informed by the army chief in 2010 about the offer — forcing him to order a Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) probe.
Tejinder Singh has sued V.K. Singh and his aides from the army headquarters for defamation over a press release that named him.
Muddying the waters further, there was another shocker of a report that V.K. Singh had authorised the illegal bugging of Antony’s office and the country’s top leadership at the peak of his age row. Again, there was vehement denial from the defence ministry.
Like the proverbial Pandora’s box, which unearthed one controversy after another, a letter written by V.K. Singh to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on gaps in defence preparedness, a top secret document, was leaked to the media. There were insinuations that the matter got into the public domain through the army chief.
An Intelligence Bureau probe is still in progress to identify who leaked that letter, labelled high treason by both the army chief and the defence minister.
In his latest move, V.K. Singh has issued a show cause notice to 3 Corps commander, Lt. Gen. Dalbir Singh Suhag, in line after Bikram Singh to become army chief, for a botched up intelligence operation in Jorhat, Assam.
Suhag, who has now been placed under a discipline and vigilance ban, is facing the prospect of not being promoted as army commander, a prerequisite for him to become army chief in 2014, if the defence ministry accepts the army chief’s decision.
If not the army chief, his supporters from the ex-servicemen community and others have shown signs of both politicising and communalising the whole age row. Some MPs from the Rajput community have approached Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on his behalf only to be snubbed.
Team Anna too has jumped on to the bandwagon, openly inviting V.K. Singh to join them after retirement.
But V.K. Singh has conveniently left the question about his future open-ended, claiming he has not had time to think about it. All he has in mind, he said, is completing his doctorate from the University of Madras.
But few are willing to take that at face value.