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Mainstream, VOL L, No 9, February 18, 2012

Importance of being the General

Sunday 19 February 2012, by Nikhil Chakravartty



Although there is us yet no clear indication as to when the Lok Sabha elections will take place, the electioneering season has already arrived. Both the Opposition and the ruling party have opened their propaganda guns, and in a few weeks, it promises to be a high-pitched election campaign.

The new element in the election campaign this time—indeed a very disconcerting element—is the ominous emergence of the brass hat in the political arena. The long-range significance of the high-profile intervention of General Sundarji at the very centre of the most critical political controversy of the day is not yet being grasped by most of our party leaders, engrossed as they are in what is going to be the bitterest election campaign in this country.

No doubt there are precedents of Generals in service, particularly Army Chiefs, having diffe-rences with the government. There are also cases of retired Service Chiefs commenting openly on matters of public interest and concern. In a functioning democracy, such happenings are neither unusual nor disturbing.

What has however invested the latest episode around General Sundarji with concern is that an issue which has for more than two years now been the item of fiercest political acrimony between the government and the Opposition, has been joined in by a distinguished soldier, who as the previous Chief of the Army Staff had very often attracted the limelight. It is however not General Sundarji’s initiative that has brought him to the centre-stage of our current politics. Rather, it was the Rajiv Government which had first dragged him into the Bofors controversy. For two long years, the Rajiv establishment has not been able to extricate him and his close circle from serious allegations of being involved in large-scale kickback in the Bofors gun deal. The government had to shift its ground every time some new exposures came in the media. In the final round in its heroic efforts at defending itself from the Bofors bribery charge in the last session of Parliament, the government brought in General Sundarji’s preference for the Swedish gun to ward off the Opposition assault. This was the most short-sighted stand of the Rajiv Government in its political confrontation with its adversaries–using the then Army Chief’s confidential recommendation in favour of the Bofors gun as a shield against the opponent’s attacks.

This folly of bringing in the General as its defence witness, committed by the government at a moment of desperation, has serious implications. It amounted to a pathetic confession of political bankruptcy on the part of the government implying that it had lost all other arguments in meeting the Opposition’s charge in the Bofors scandal and had to fall back upon the General’s testimony as its last resort. When a government seeks a General’s protection to save itself in a political combat, it undermines the very foundations of democracy. In other words, it is not just a question of a General entering a political debate, but a beleaguered government seeking his protection in a major political combate. When a ruling establishment puts up an Army Chief as its main defender in meeting a political challenge, then it abdicates in effect its own political authority, and thereby undermines democracy.

The inevitable followed. General Sundarji in his first press interview after retirement lamb-asted the government including the Prime Minister and his trusted officials for holding back from the public what he in service had advised about getting at the bribe-takers and how his advice on this count had been spurned by the Prime Minister and his aides. The Defence Ministry’s response actually confirmed the General’s claim of having tendered such a piece of advice though it contested some other points in his press interview.

Then came General Sundarji’s second instalment of press interviews, more flamboyant and more aggressive, in which he outright accused the Rajiv Government for resorting to a “bloody cover-up” of the Bofors kickback scandal. The very tone of the General’s charge is bound to bring down the prestige of the Rajiv Government before the public, no matter what his sycophants and intelligence agencies may be telling the Prime Minister about the public reactions on this serious episode.

Not that General Sundarji’s stand has no flaws in it in the eyes of any discerning observer. His explanation why he shifted his choice from the French gun, which he had tenaciously pressed for, to the Bofors might be technically valid and one need not suggest that it was made with an eye to getting the very top post in the Service, but one had the feeling that in that particular phase, however brief, of his close bonhomie with the Rajiv circle, he might have been subjectively swayed to a certain extent to switch his choice to the Bofors. One however should not labour this point too much as any Chief of the Army Staff has the prerogative to recommend whatever weapon he might consider the best at a particular point of time.

Secondly, when General Sundarji came to learn about the kickback in the deal, why did he confine his advice to passing on a couple of notes to the Secretary? As a Service Chief he had direct access to the Prime Minister and even to the President. There are many precedents which show that when a Service Chief could not agree with a Defence Secretary, he had gone direct to the Prime Minister to sort out things. Nobody will accuse General Sundarji as being self-effacing, why then was this reticence to go upto the Prime Minister–even with the resignation letter in his pocket?

Thirdly, General Sundarji has claimed that had the Bofors deal been cancelled as a result of the pressure on it to name the bribe-takers, he was prepared to take what he called “an acceptable risk” of having to face a delay of at least 18 months to get a suitable gun in place of the Bofors. The Army Chief’s view should no doubt be a major input in any government’s decision in the matter of purchasing a gun; at the same time the Army Chief too owes it to the government to provide a convincing case behind his decision, particularly when one takes into account the persistent decade-old demand from the Defence Services for updating the weaponry in the prevailing security environment.

Such questions are not meant to dismiss the serious charges levelled by the former Army Chief against the government but to underline that the disclosures made so far give the impression to the public that if the Rajiv Government treated with scant respect the General’s advice in handling the Bofors scandal, he too on his part conducted himself rather cavalierly in trying to seek out the culprits who got kickback in this massive arms purchase.

General Sundarji has criticised some of the leading lights of the Opposition for their irresponsibility. Much of it they deserve since they seem to take this case as just an election issue to get at the ruling party. The most shocking was N.T. Rama Rao’s virtual incitement to the jawans. Janata Dal leader Vishwanath Pratap Singh has denounced the Rajiv Government all the more stridently after General Sundarji’s disclosures. One got the impression that he seemed to agree with the General. One would like to be enlightened that if he came to power, would V.P. Singh go in for the cancellations of the Bofors contract if the Swedish firm refused to disclose the recipients of the Rs 64-crore bribe? This is a legitimate question in the season of electioneering.

The Rajiv establishment has certainly suffered a serious political setback as a result of General Sundarji’s disclosures. It has yet to explain its position on the serious disclosures made by The Hindu on which the government seems to have gone tight-lipped.

The message that one seems to get from the former Army Chief’s intervention is that in the midst of a corrupt establishment and an irresponsible Opposition, the General emerges as the Hercules who alone can clean the Augean stables of the filth left by the politicians.

Not a very happy day for our democracy. Must we take to the road that Pakistan is struggling to abandon?

(Mainstream, September 16, 1989)

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