Army chief battles Indian gov't, blames corruption

March 29, 2012 - 7:56 AM
India Army Weakness

FILE - In this Jan. 30, 2012 file photo, Indian Army Chief V.K. Singh, second left, salutes Indian Defense Minister A.K. Anthony, second right, at the memorial of Mahatma Gandhi on Martyr's Day in New Delhi, India. Antony told India's Parliament Wednesday, March 28, 2012, that the government was addressing the concerns that the army chief had raised in a letter to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh that nearly all of India's air defense equipment was out-of-date. (AP Photo/Saurabh Das, File)

NEW DELHI (AP) — In his day, India's army chief fought the Pakistani army in the battlefields of Bangladesh and the Tamil Tiger insurgents in the forests of Sri Lanka. Now, he has a new adversary — his own government.

Over the last three months, Gen. Vijay Kumar Singh sued the government in the Supreme Court, claimed the defense minister ignored his complaint about being offered a bribe and is now fending off demands for his resignation after the leak of a letter he wrote to the prime minister claiming the army was falling to pieces.

That last revelation has been so alarming it has managed to unify the country's squabbling political parties, which say the general may have gone too far and exposed the country's flawed defense to its enemies.

Singh, who is due to retire in two months, has denied any role in the leak of the letter that claims the Indian army is "devoid of critical ammunition to defeat enemy tanks" and the air defense system was "97 percent obsolete."

"The leaking of the letter should be treated as high treason. This cynical approach to tar my reputation has to stop. The source of the leak has to be found and dealt with ruthlessly," Singh said in a statement Thursday, according to the Press Trust of India.

Defense Minister A.K. Antony told reporters that an investigation has been ordered into the leak, which "only helps our enemies."

The tumble of conflicts has highlighted the dysfunction between the man at the helm of one of the world's largest armies and the government that appointed him nearly two years ago.

"We could not have a better way of showing the world how far we are from being a world power than the drama being staged in public view by the custodians of our security," political analyst Manoj Joshi wrote in the Mail Today newspaper on Thursday.

"The fact that he was shooting off letters to the defense minister and the PM indicate that he is more interested in muddying the record" than fixing the problems that plague the army, Joshi wrote.

The drama began in January when after weeks of public bickering over his birth date, Singh took the unprecedented step of taking the government to the country's top court. He claimed government records falsely showed him to be a year older than he was, an error that robbed him of a year in service — a year where he could remain in his powerful position.

He lost that battle when the court decided he would retire in May as planned.

The general then went on to claim in a newspaper interview that he had been offered a $2.8 million bribe to approve the purchase of substandard trucks for the army.

Singh said he rejected the bribe in horror and told Antony about it but nothing was done to investigate the charge.

Antony told Parliament on Monday that he had asked the general to take action, but the army chief had refused. The matter has been handed over to federal investigators.

Then came the leak of the letter describing the fragile state of the country's defense.

India has one of the world's largest armies, with 1.2 million active soldiers and nearly another million in reserves. Over the last many years it has emerged as one of the world's leading defense spenders spurred by rivalries with both of its major neighbors — Pakistan and China.

It has fought three wars with Pakistan — two of them over the Himalayan region of Kashmir. Tensions with China have risen as well in recent years, as the two nations contend for regional dominance. Modernizing its army is part of its ambition to become a regional and global power.

A public declaration of the inadequacies of its army is an especially sensitive subject.

On Thursday, Antony accepted the army needed "substantial step up for modernization," but refused to get drawn in to how the government planned to handle Singh.

"All three service chiefs still enjoy the confidence of the government. They're still working."

The conflict with the army chief is one of a slew of scandals embroiling the Congress party-led government. Last week, a leaked audit report said the government had lost hundreds of billions of dollars by selling coalfields to companies without competitive bidding. Former officials are also facing corruption charges stemming from the hosting of the 2010 Commonwealth Games and the shady sale of cellphone spectrum.

But while the opposition has been severely critical of the government on all those counts, they appear to have rallied against Singh.

"He should be sacked immediately. Why was he silent all these days if there was shortage of ammunition?" opposition politician Lalu Prasad told reporters Wednesday.

"If there are any issues concerning the forces, then he should have taken the defense minister into confidence," he said.