The controversy over the leaking of a confidential communication between the Army Chief , General VK Singh and the PM has become increasingly bitter and acrimonious as the deliberations in Parliament suggested. One hopes that the meeting on Friday (March 30) between the principal interlocutors will help to calm the turbulence, which if left unchecked can have very serious long term implications that will damage for national security.

However this is not to suggest that the issues that have been raised in this churning  (‘manthan’) are not worthy of serious consideration by the government, parliament, civil society – and the media.  At the heart of the controversy is the content of the letter sent by the Army Chief to the PM – alerting the latter about the serious deficiencies in the army’s inventory and preparedness to face an operational exigency – and expressing his anguish at the various reasons for this sorry state of affairs in the Indian military machine. The timing of the disclosure of this letter could not have at a more inopportune moment for PM Singh, considering that he was hosting the leaders of the BRICS for a summit at the same time – and the guests included the Chinese President Hu Jintao – a country that causes deep concern in the Indian security establishment – a feeling that was reflected in the VK Singh letter.

But democracies have their own texture and rhythm and one could suggest that the tenor of the debate in Parliament where the opposition led by Arun Jaitly and the manner in which the deliberations over civil-military relations spilled into the media are indicative of the resilience of the Indian democratic experience.

Three issues that are central to the current controversy need to be illuminated. The first is the manner in which a highly confidential letter from the Army Chief to the PM came into the public domain. Clearly there was some party in the loop from the sender to the recipient who chose to leak the letter – selectively. This is a very serious breach of  national security and privileged communication and responsibility for this will have to be fixed – impartially – at the earliest.

 Both the Army Chief and the Raksha Mantri   have condemned this act and it remains to be seen how the investigation will proceed. The IB has been directed to investigate and Gen. Singh has called this an act of “treason.”

 The second issue is that of the content of the letter and here it may be noted that  much of the concern and anguish expressed by the Army Chief is a familiar litany amongst the professionals who follow the Indian security debate. It is a sad reality that going back to the post Rajiv Gandhi era – that is from 1990 onwards – the modernization and replacement of old inventory in the Indian military has been very inadequate. Thus large gaps exist and the most glaring – and embarrassing  example  is the reality that the Indian government has not been able to identify and acquire a new artillery gun and the controversy over the Bofors is a shadow that has not lifted.
Concurrently in this two decade period, India’s ability to produce military equipment within the country has been woefully inadequate and the defence public sector units and the DRDO have not been able to deliver what the Indian military requires for the operational preparedness that national security requires. And thu India now has the dubious distinction of being among the world’s largest importers of military equipment. Regrettably this  aspect has never been discussed in the Indian parliament in these two decades and the government has paid mere lip-service by setting up Task forces but not implementing their recommendations – or even placing this in the public domain.

The prevailing status-quo where India continues to import arms and equipment and the apex of the Indian military is kept out of the higher decision making matrix has led to some very undesirable consequences of which the current controversy is a manifestation. Civil-military relations are brittle – the Indian political class has no direct contact with the ‘fauj’ and the civil service provides the interface. Corruption in various arms deals has become rampant and from the Bofors-HDW submarine scandals of the late 1980’s to more recent scams, the received wisdom is that the Indian electoral cycle and the tainted neta-babu  combine have been responsible for nurturing an ethos of corruption in military procurement.

This draws attention to the third strand in the current controversy – that of corruption in high office and the manner in which allegations of corruption have been pursued by the Indian state. Whether it is the allegation against other Generals (Tejinder Singh and Suhag) or other matters that have lain dormant , today corruption has  become the more visible leit-motif for India. 

While Gen. Singh may be castigated for procedural lapses ( going to the Supreme Court for redress or speaking to the media ) in many ways, the  dark cloud  generated by his actions may still have a silver lining. Critical issues such as corruption in high office, civil-military relations, the gaps in the Indian military and the culture of ‘leaks’ needs to be examined objectively over a sustained period.

The BRICS Summit and the on-going defexpo provide a backdrop and context as to why both the image and reality of ‘creaking’ India need to be adequately reviewed and repaired. Institutional integrity whether that  of the Army Chief, the Defence Minister or that of the PMO is sacred and this should be protected at all cost.