It's the army now: How many institutions will survive UPA?

The UPA government's sustained assault on institutions has taken another toll. The defence ministry decided on Thursday that Army Chief Gen VK Singh was born in 1950, and should, therefore, retire a year earlier than planned in May, 2012.

In doing so, it has politicised the army. Just as it has the police, the regulatory agencies, and other institutions.

The politicisation of the police needs no further evidence, though plenty is available every day. On Thursday, the Delhi police rushed to give the Congress and the Samajwadi Party a clean chit in the 2008 cash-for-votes scam when it had not even completed its investigation, reports the Hindustan Times. Earlier we had Kapil Sibal rubbishing the Comptroller and Auditor General report on the 2G scam.

It's the army now. The issue is not whether Gen Singh was born in 1950 or 1951, or whether some goof-up that happened decades ago should now be held against him. The issue is plain and simple: the army is one institution that has so far been relatively free from political interference. The UPA has made it clear that it will not let this institution alone, too.

Everyone and his aunt knows that the previous army chief had created a succession plan and changed the rules of the game to ensure that specific generals get to be army chief when their time comes. Since the current army chief stood in the way, his age confusion came in handy to cut his tenure short (See Firstpost story on this).

Since commanders just below the level of army chief were getting divided into camps due to the uncertainty over Singh's age, the defence ministry was right to end the suspense. But it did so in the worst possible way. Even assuming that it was convinced about Gen Singh’s 1950 date of birth, it should not have decided to end his tenure midway and created a bad precedent. It could have ended the controversy by saying maybe the date was wrong, but in future we will handle issues like this according to these new rules. This would have ended the politicking and allowed the current army chief to end his tenure with his dignity intact.

Instead, a different message has now gone through loud and clear: if enough doubts are created about any incumbent, the ministry will intervene. This is nothing but an open invitation to  ambitious senior generals to start playing political games to get their way in future.

What has happened in the police force will now start happening in the army. Instead of being seen as one fighting force, the army will now be seen as an aggregation of camps, each seeking to curry favour with politicians. Worse, they may start leaking damaging information about one another to the media – just as it happens in politics or the bureaucracy or the police force.

 Its the army now: How many institutions will survive UPA?

India's Commander of the Army, General Vijay Kumar Singh. Dinuka Liyanawatte/Reuters

The UPA government has been busy destroying institutions one by one in its political fight for supremacy. Last year, it goofed up in the appointment of the Chief Vigilance Commissioner by over-ruling the BJP’s objections over a tainted candidate.

Then it churlishly refused an extension to the Sebi chief, CB Bhave, after first giving him an inkling that he may get an extension. Sebi chiefs ought to get clear five-year terms, but this government has tried to subvert the practice by giving them three years, with the option of extending it by another two.

Two other worthy Sebi members – KM Abraham and MS Sahoo – were also shown the door despite the fact that in 2010, both were asked if they were willing to take an extension. Both said yes, but were eased out. The finance ministry obviously likes Sebi officials to kowtow.

And now, the Reserve Bank Governor, Duvvuri Subbarao, is waiting near the fax machine trying to figure out whether the finance ministry is going to give him an extension when his three-year tenure ends in September.

Quite clearly, the finance ministry under Pranab Mukherjee is not willing to trust key institutions under its ambit with longer tenures.

A report in The Economic Times hinted that a key advisor to Mukherjee, Omita Paul, played a role in the Sebi ousters, especially that of Bhave. Said the newspaper: “The decision on this (Bhave’s extension) was to have been taken by the cabinet committee on appointments, a group of senior ministers, including the prime minister. But in January 2010, the finance ministry called back the proposal. This, according to media reports, was prompted by a note from Omita Paul, an advisor to the finance minister. In that note, Paul is reported to have suggested that there was no need to decide on Bhave's tenure more than a year before it expired.”

Oh, yeah? So Sebi chiefs should be kept waiting till the last minute?

We know now what happened. The Economic Times also hinted at a possible link between these Sebi exits, and the fact that regulator was taking a tough line on corporate wrongdoing. First, it penalised Anil Ambani and his companies Rs 50 crore for alleged violations of portfolio investment rules. Abraham handled this sensitive case.

Sahoo, who was hearing arguments relating to charges of insider trading raised against Reliance, is also now gone. Abraham, who wrote the tough order on the Sahara group last month, asking two companies to return their optionally fully convertible debentures (OFCDs) with interest, is also gone.

And now, we have Defence Minister AK Antony cutting short the Army Chief’s tenure.

Which institution can survive these kinds of sustained political assaults?

Updated Date: Jul 22, 2011 12:49:23 IST