Sideshows begin as part of India’s great political circus

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Warning: This post has somewhat elevated levels of cynicism.

India’s former Army Chief and now a political aspirant General V K Singh is facing potentially damning allegations, including one that says he “misused” secret service funds* to topple the Jammu and Kashmir state government.

Ritu Sarin of the Indian Express, a good old-fashioned print journalist, has a story out that quotes from a secret army report about the alleged machinations of General Singh during his tenure in 2010. The general has dismissed the allegations as politically motivated.

There are three key allegations. One is that as the army chief Singh misused secret service funds to destabilize the government of Chief Minister Omar Abdullah in Kashmir. Second is that he authorized the use of funds from the same source to payoff a non-governmental organization (NGO) to tie up his rival in the army General Bikram Singh in a legal battle and thereby influence the line of succession. The third is that the funds were used to buy off-air interception equipment, to conduct "unauthorized" covert operations. All this was under a covert Military Intelligence (MI) unit called the Technical Services Division (TSD) that he set up.

Predictably, an aspect of this controversy that is hogging most Indian media attention is the “timing” of the newspaper publishing these allegations. The question of timing has to do with the fact that General V K SIngh recently shared dais at a political rally addressed by the rightwing Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi.  Modi is currently India’s most reviled politician and will remain so until the parliamentary elections of 2014. His camp followers argue that General Singh is being attacked as a proxy attack against Modi. The BJP also insists that this is a politically motivated media leak whose “timing” is highly suspicious.

I have never understood this complaint about timing. Why are we so down on timing? In politics, as in life, timing is everything. If the ruling dispensation engages in politically motivated attacks against its opponents, what is particularly wrong about it as long as the substance that fuels such attacks is unimpeachable? It is not my case that the substance in this particular affair is unimpeachable. That remains to be seen. My point is about the political timing of any disclosure. Whining about timing cannot be the main defense of any scandal. Timing is merely a part of statecraft which all political parties do and ought to engage in in order to perpetuate their hold over the state of affairs. All political parties are political parties precisely to be in pursuit of power.

Coming to the substance of the allegations even being stationed in New Delhi would not have qualified me to hold forth on their veracity. To that extent, my distance from the unfolding drama does not necessarily make me less qualified. The report has been submitted by a secret Board of Officers inquiry conducted by the army. To that extent, one can at least accord it some measure of seriousness. Of course,  such reports can always be politically instigated or managed. Everything can be politically instigated in a democracy.

In specific terms, one of the allegations says that a Kashmir politician named Ghulam Hassan Mir, who is currently the state’s agriculture minister, was paid Rs. 11.9 million (about $240,000 at the 2010 dollar-rupee exchange rate) to destabilize the Abdullah government. The less credulous among political observers have with some justification pointed out that only a fool would believe that an Indian politician these days would accept such a paltry sum to topple an entire government. As a friend and fellow journalist Mahesh Vijapurkar points out in his Facebook update it is “chickenfeed to politicians. A civic councilor in any major city will treat it as small change.” Mahesh makes a valid point but that said, it is not altogether inconceivable that that amount was aimed at initially stirring up the pot. Sometimes it is the initial shaking up that can lead to major political churning.

On the face of it, the second allegation about trying to influence the line of army succession appears to have a little more meat in it. The antipathies between General V K Singh and the current army chief General Bikram Singh have long been known. From that standpoint secretly funding an NGO to file a public interest litigation case against General Bikram Singh does not seem all that absurd. Whether it was true is another matter but as a strategy it is not so ridiculous. The allegation is that nearly Rs. 24 million (about half a million dollars) was given to this NGO under orders from the Army Headquarters (meaning General V K Singh) to waylay General Bikram Singh into some litigious maze to scuttle his rise as the army chief. The case was dismissed and he did go on to become the army boss.

These are, of course, all allegations and strongly refuted by the general himself. His supporters argue that it is because he was seen with Narendra Modi, the current ruling Congress Party’s prime political target, this secret report was leaked to an obliging newspaper. The Indian Express is not known to be an obliging newspaper but that little detail is swiftly hidden by the general’s supporters.

If the allegation about a sitting army chief trying to topple a democratically elected government, even if it is a state government, is true then it would be the first of its kind in India’s modern history. That alone should merit a more detailed investigation, something the Indian government seems to have shied away from despite having received the secret report in May this year. That is where the question of the timing of this leak comes in. The contention is that as the Modi juggernaut gathers steam, the ruling Congress Party would keep planting political mines such as these allegations along the way.

As votaries of all ancient Indian wisdom, in particular the kind advocated by the great economic and political strategist and thinker Chanakya (370–283 BCE), the BJP should hardly feel justified in whining about political machinations and their timing.

Once you view all this as the great unfolding of the ritual Indian political circus everything becomes clear and comprehensible.

* I do not understand the “misused” part of the whole deal. What, pray tell, is the purpose of any covert funds after all if not misuse them? Misuse is the very definition of any covert fund.

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About chutiumsulfate

South Asians can infer from my name what I am. View all posts by chutiumsulfate

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