May 31 should be the day that India’s Defence Minister observes mauna-vrata — the profound vow of silence. A day of deep introspection through which he could take stock of past life and realise where he may have gone wrong. But the incumbent Defence Minister A K Antony can’t oblige, as he is caught up in street-fighting for his party in a remote corner of India.
The point is, as the curtain comes down on May 31 on the tenure of General Vijay Kumar Singh as the army chief, troubling questions arise. After all, the buck stops with the defence minister.
The MOD today is like the Aegean stables with the greatest number of cattles in the country and they have never been cleaned. High expectations were raised that Antony would rise to the occasion as the great hero Heracles. But in this Labour of Heracles, government is taking recourse to the washing out of the filth in the time-tested method — appointing inquiries after inquiries whenever the stench becomes too overpowering.
The ancient Greeks drew comfort that the divinely healthy livestock produced, after all, an enormous quantity of dung. The government congratulates itself that it is setting new records in spending the money allocated for arms purchases.
But even more troubling are two other issues. One is about the discipline and morale within the armed forces. The country has been witness to a frightening spectacle of the top echelons of the army indulging in political skulduggery, back-stabbing and rabble-rousing that has no precedents in the history of independent India.
This, in turn, brings the focus on the core issue, namely, the role of defence minister as the political boss of the MOD pyramid. The MOD is an empire rather than a government ministry. Which requires stewardship of the highest calibre at the political level. Which was also why tough politicians ruled this empire starting from V K Krishna Menon. Alas, civilian supremacy took a body blow in the most recent period.
Part of the reason for this is that when the top brass see how the political class is having a jolly good time without any accountability, they lose respect for the political leadership. Singh has asked some pointed questions in his media interviews. Suffice to say, when the army chief becomes a far more absorbing political personality
for the media than the defence minister, the nadir has been reached. Something has gone dangerously wrong. A spot of mauna-vrata
is needed on the part of the Defence Minister.