Absurdness comes in various forms. In the stratified levels of the uniformed bureaucracy it seems to come in the form of a birth day, or more accurately, birth year.
Decorated soldiers are usually expected to know when they were born so when the Army Chief thought his real birth day was on 10 May 1951, he perhaps did not expect the claim to end up in such ignominy. Not quite right, General, as the Defence Minister has ruled: it was actually 1950.
It would have been funny if it wasn’t so pathetic. Did the dispute over the extra year really matter so much? The longevity of the Chief’s career and the selection of who succeeds him depended on this calculation but in the larger scheme of things, the unseemly controversy on General VK Singh’s exact age has now gone on long enough to cloud his office itself and possibly even his legacy.
The Defence Minister has gone by the Law Ministry’s unequivocal opinion. The General may challenge it but surely it is absurd that this kind of a dispute on a birth day has festered for so long. You can’t be a little pregnant, just as you can’t have two birthdays.
Even the General’s supporters will acknowledge that it is odd for such a senior Army officer, whose every biographical detail gets meticulously recorded in service records, to have a dispute over something as basic as a birth-date after spending four decades in uniform. Irrespective of whose version you agree with, at the very least, it is an indictment of the system itself.
General Singh took office at a time when the Army was seriously embarrassed over a series of scams like the Sukhna scam and promised to clean up. The curious dispute over his age has actually ended up muddying the waters even further.
What should have been a simple procedural matter has unnecessarily become a public issue and the very fact that there has been such an unseemly debate about the Army Chief’s age-claim has been damaging to the institution itself.
Meanwhile, as South Block has seemed preoccupied with the veracity of age certificates, there are other more important things happening like the recent appointment of a new task force for higher defence management headed by Navin Chandra.
India’s higher defence management remains stuck in a time warp and needs an urgent overhaul. From Arun Singh’s Committee on Defence Expenditure set up by VP Singh to the Kargil Review Committee and the task force on defence appointed by Prime Minister Vajpayee, led again by Arun Singh, every review exercise in the past three decades has basically said as much. Yet, the pace of change has been glacial.
There is still no integrated Chief of Defence Staff for single-point advice on defence issues, the three service headquarters are still not integrated into the Defence Ministry and operate in parallel systems and the three armed services still don’t plan together in operational terms.
It is has been ten years since the Kargil Review Committee recommended many of these changes but a fundamental shift in defence management in line with our evolving defence needs has still not been implemented. For a country with high power pretensions, it shows terrible stasis and an unhealthy bureaucratic gridlock that has asphyxiated the need for creative change in defence policy making. The setting up of the Chandra task force has once again opened up a window.
Even if past experience belies hope, this is a moment of great possibility for South Block. Its energies should be focussed on harnessing its immense potential at a time when it is also emerging as one of the world’s largest buyers of armaments.
The last thing India needs just now is an unseemly spat over a general’s birthday and armies of lawyers poring over birth certificates. It is time to move on to the things that really matter.