Once again, political foes and media alike are demanding the resignation of Defence Minister AK Antony – this time, a fallout of the INS Sindhuratna accident. This is despite the fact that all through his career – amongst his political detractors as well as journalists – Antony has been much respected and admired for his squeaky clean and transparent image.
One wonders – given his character in a political arena where almost every transaction or position comes under the scanner for some corruption or the other – if indeed Antony should resign. Are we ready, as a country, to unseat a man known to be one of the few torchbearers of honesty and integrity in our Government?
Who and how Antony will be replaced, should he step down, is another matter. One is forced to question many issues related to him to get a clearer picture of this calm, composed and absolutely straight Union Defence Minister.
Antony has been blamed for having been involved in a long battle of ideology and words with former Army Chief VK Singh. But the fact remains that the former General was made of different stuff, perhaps the first one in the history of Independent India’s Army who questioned the Government on several accounts, often embarrassingly in public, which did nothing more than expose the cracks between the Government and its Army. Even senior officers in the Army admit that the rebel streak in Singh is not a good sign for a democratic country.
Then, of course, there was the so-called ‘coup’ attempt during Singh’s tenure. According to reports, during the time when VK Singh was the Army Chief, the then Director General of Military Operations (DGMO) had claimed that a panicked Defence Secretary had summoned him to know about the movement of troops on the day Singh approached the Supreme Court and asked that the troops be sent back, sparking rumours of a ‘coup attempt’. “There was a misconception or there was difference in perception or there may be distrust,” Lt General (Retd) AK Choudhary, the then DGMO had reportedly told media.
The question now is whether the media is right in highlighting the trust deficit between the Armed Forces and the Executive, or probing the whole incident deeper. Does it not indicate that the Army had lost the confidence of its Government and there was something gravely amiss? After all, who wields the gun?
Then there were the cancellation of various defence deals, the alleged bribery case against a former Air Chief in the VVIP chopper scam, and the Tatra Trucks sandal. Should one blame the Defence Ministry or acknowledge the attempts of the Defence Minister to stop a long-drawn practice of corruption within the defence structure of the country? Shouldn’t he be given the credit for at least attempting to make the Armed Forces more transparent and cleanse the system?
It’s a known fact within the halls of journalism that scandals don’t break out unless there is someone within the system who is ready to play the whistle-blower, many a time, anonymously. That the numerous exposes within the defence machinery surfaced during Antony’s tenure is proof of the fact that his ‘clean’ image did nudge the moral sense of many to actually make misdeeds public in order to put a stop to them. And, the fact that it was Antony who censured or barred many defence firms from taking the corrupt route to arm India cannot be taken away from him. He has been tough, blacklisting more than half a dozen international defence companies for allegedly taking the middlemen route to India’s arsenal.
There is a theory that instead of merely blacklisting the firms, Antony should have also sparked indigenisation. But then, as a former Major General who refused to be named scoffs, “As if that is a cleaner route! Who says indigenisation is free of corruption? Look at the smallest contract in the Army and you will know. We must remember, this is the country where shady deals happen even over the body bags and coffins to bring the dead soldiers home.”
One wonders, why every time there is an attack on an Indian Army patrol at the Line of Control (LoC) or a scam like the AgustaWestland choppers breaks out or an incident like the INS Sindhuratna accident occurs, there’s a clamour for Antony’s head? There was never such a din for a minister’s resignation when the enemy had occupied forward bunkers in 1999, while the Northern Command Army Chief was tending to his animal farm! How is Antony to be blamed if the Armed Forces of the country are equipped with outdated and rusting weapons, because some minister before his time had allowed all-out corruption and undercutting in its hardware purchases?
It is pertinent to note that the Armed Forces have not had much-needed weapons and equipment upgrade for some time now, that the Indian Air Force’s bid to buy 126 multi-role combat aircraft has still not seen the light of day, and the Indian Navy’s submarine fleet is more than 25 years old, even as the ill-equipped Coast Guard has to borrow ships from the Navy to guard India’s coastal line. This is more to do with red-tapism within the system rather than a minister himself.
Former Uttarakhand Chief Minister and BJP leader, Maj Gen (Retd) BC Khanduri, admitted as much during a CNN-IBN panel discussion, “The way the defence services are run in the country has been suicidal. The bureaucracy has all the powers. There is absolute lack of confidence between the two. There is a sickening arrogance on the part of the bureaucracy. The system should be pro-nation and not pro-bureaucracy. The bureaucracy who sits in the driver’s seat is without accountability, but arrogance. We must get out of this civil-military syndrome and think of national interest.”
Khanduri spoke about an inherent flaw in the system, which even a man with such high integrity as Antony is unable to eradicate. In a sense, he is more of a victim of the system himself.
The Indian media also must own up its responsibility in the all-round confusion and disparity plaguing the Armed Forces today. After all, it is the Fourth Estate and the onus falls on it to hammer the warnings against the wrongdoings and mismanagement within the Armed Forces before it’s too late. One minister, howsoever clean and transparent he may be, cannot take the blame alone.