Antony vs Army Chief: When honesty is not good enough

Does honesty have to mean incompetence or impotence?

The case of “honest” Manmohan Singh’s frozen impotence in the face of super-scale corruption  – Commonwealth Games and 2G scams – is too well know to bear repetition.

Less well known is the case of AK Antony, the “honest” defence minister of the country. Antony has made personal honesty his watchword – but few believe that his honesty comes with any kind of competence. He was thrice made chief minister of Kerala – but ended up without any achievements to boot in each case. His political incompetence trumped his honesty.

In his current avatar as defence minister of India – a post that is usually so close to corruption – honest Antony should have been able to work wonders. In the Union cabinet, Antony is among the poorest.

But his inability to deliver justice to the present army chief, Gen VK Singh, who is fighting a lone battle to prevent his tenure from being curtailed on the plea that there was a doubt about his exact birth date, is proof that honesty alone is not good enough.

Controversy about an army chief’s date of birth might seem like a minor thing to rake up against Antony, but more controversial is another charge: that his ministry allowed an Israeli firm to bill a humongous Rs 600 crore as “business charges” in a Rs 10,000 crore missile deal with Israel Aerospace Industries.

The story, broken by Josy Joseph in DNA newspaper three years ago, happened under Antony’s watch (Read the full story here). It should be recalled that Rajiv Gandhi was tainted by the Bofors case, where Swedish Radio announced that Rs 64 crore was paid to middlemen as bribes to secure the deal. Now, under a regime presided over by his widow Sonia, and under a ministry headed by “honest” Antony, we have an unexplained sum of Rs 600 crore being paid as “business charges” by the UPA government to an Israeli arms manufacturer. Till date, the government has not explained what this money is about.

 Antony vs Army Chief: When honesty is not good enough

The Indian Army chief is fighting a lone battle to prevent his tenure from being curtailed on doubts over his exact birth date. Reuters

DNA, quoting insiders, wrote in March 2009: “Insiders suggest that the cabinet committee on security (CCS), which cleared the (Israeli missile) deal, and the defence ministry were either complicit or gullible in accepting the arguments forwarded by IAI while levying these hefty ‘business charges’. It is unprecedented in a contract of this nature, which is supposed to be a joint development project.”

At that time, the CCS had Manmohan Singh, Pranab Mukherjee, P Chidambaram, AK Antony and Montek Singh Ahluwalia as its members.

Could this kind of decision to pay Rs 600 crore as “business charges” have been taken by so many “honest” people without political concurrence from the top?

If Antony saw something wrong in it, he kept it to himself. And the same is the case with controversy involving the birth date of the army chief – who is widely seen as a straightforward man who brought some corrupt officers to book. The Sukna land scam is one of them.

Briefly this is the case: Gen VK Singh says he was born on 10 May 1951, and this fact is borne out by the date mentioned in his matriculation certificate. The Supreme Court has accepted the matriculation certificate as adequate proof of age in many earlier cases. Three former Supreme Court judges also concur with this view. So that should have been that.

But Antony’s ministry – allegedly at the behest of bureaucrats and some former members of the army who were targeted by Gen Singh in corruption cases – has preferred to follow some wrongly filled records in the army to say that Singh was born a year earlier in 1950. Hence he will have to retire this May (2012) and not next May.

In an earlier report, Firstpost reported how the date controversy arose when a previous army chief worked to create a specific succession plan to exclude Gen Singh. “When preparing this particular succession plan, the said army chief went by the Army List, which gives Gen Singh’s date of birth as 10 May 1950. The Army List is prepared by the military secretary (MS) branch and contains minimal details. The branch otherwise deals with postings, promotions, deputations, and retirement, and is not the legal repository or otherwise of personal and family details of an officer. Right from the time an officer enters the training academy till he retires and even after, all records are maintained by the adjutant general (AG) branch.  The AG branch clearly puts Gen Singh’s age as 10 May 1951.

However, now that Antony has held that Gen Singh must retire early, the issue is threatening to snowball into a political and legal controversy – with deleterious effects on the Army morale.

While the Supreme Court is expected to hear a public interest litigation in this regard, Capt Amarinder Singh, former Congress CM of Punjab, has written a letter to Antony attacking former Army Chief Gen Deepak Kapoor for creating the controversy. The date discrepancy, wrote Amarinder Singh in his letter to Antony, “seems to be part of some army HQ politics geared to placing individuals in position to be future chiefs.” The Indian Express, which broke this story, also quotes Amarinder Singh as saying that “Gen VK Singh continues to get support of the vast majority” in the army.

Clearly, the issue has assumed political overtones, and Antony needs to end the controversy either by rescinding his order to force Gen Singh to retire early or by working out a compromise with him where the general is not forced to seek redress in a court of law.

In fact, the issue is not about a date anymore. It is about the morale of the Army. At the very least, common courtesy demanded that an army chief’s retirement date should not have been the subject of controversy after he is appointed. If this issue had been raised before, the matter could have been sorted out differently.

Honest Antony faces an acid test. To prove that he has the moral strength in him to take the right decision.

Updated Date: Jan 03, 2012 12:04:18 IST