And MPs can’t criticise the Army chief?

Karan Thapar’s latest hatchet job is on Jaswant Singh

There are many good ways to argue that politicians should not criticise Army chiefs. But it’s an untenable argument to make in a democracy. It is especially untenable when the criticism comes from the Leader of the Opposition in the Rajya Sabha and is made in parliament. It sounds like an argument that even General (retd) Musharraf will find it difficult to make today across the border in Pakistan. Be that as it may, it is possible to make such an argument with decency, decorum and respect for the politician and the army chief.

Karan Thapar’s argument though is marked by sarcasm towards Jaswant Singh on the one hand, and an attempt to play to the stereotype of military officials being above reproach on the other. The issue was Mr Singh’s criticism of General Deepak Kapoor’s comments on the India-China border dispute (see The Catapult). Given China’s insincerity over resolving the border dispute, it would have been amiss for parliament to give General Kapoor’s injudicious characterisation a pass. By placing objections to the army chief’s formulation on parliamentary record, Mr Singh provided a back-stop in border negotiations. If anything, it was an example of what a responsible Opposition should be doing in parliament. By playing bad cop, Mr Singh saved the government from having to clarify General Kapoor’s remarks.

Mr Thapar, though, should be free to disagree. But sarcastically referring to Mr Singh as ‘Major’ Singh demonstrates nothing more than spite. Jaswant Singh, a former army officer, has never used his military rank in his political life. And indeed, in his autobiography, he writes “My commissioned service in the Army of just about nine years, 15 December 1957 — 22 November 1966, has no place in this narrative”. To cast Mr Singh’s criticism as that of a Major against a General is excessively flippant, excessively spiteful and utterly misleading.

Mr Thapar pulls out a ‘grand argument’ to support his diatribe against Mr Singh: that politicians generally belittle military leaders. Instead of providing meaningful evidence in support of this, all Mr Thapar tells us is that Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw has not been considered for the Bharat Ratna! Perhaps being promoted to the nation’s only field marshal while still in service, and being decorated with the country’s second highest civilian award is not recognition enough, but Mr Thapar makes an unlikely champion for Sam Bahadur. For it was Mr Thapar who broadcast Gohar Ayub Khan casting aspersions on Field Marshal Manekshaw’s integrity. Mr Thapar had then followed it up with an insinuating op-ed in the Hindustan Times. (Journalists, Mr Thapar might contend in his defence, are only looking for a story, the sensational the better. Journalists, Mr Thapar might also contend, need not bother with the ‘dignity’ of the Army chief’s office. Those virtues are for politicians. He’s will be right about journalists, but wrong about politicians.)

Yet, the ‘grand argument’ is a bogey in this case. The issue boils down to, specifically, whether it was inappropriate of Mr Singh to criticise General Kapoor’s comments about the border dispute. And in general, whether it is inappropriate for MPs to criticise military officers in parliament. Even Karan Thapar can’t reasonably make this argument. Hence, perhaps, the sarcasm, spite and misleading framing.

Related Links: The Catapult has two posts on the topic; Pragmatic Euphony has a post on Jaswant Singh’s remarks.

3 thoughts on “And MPs can’t criticise the Army chief?”

  1. Freedom of speech is a must. But should we draw a line somewhere? Is that the need of the hour today. And if yes, then where does it stop being speech and begin to be a nuisance?

  2. Dear Michael,

    It would be a sad day when we would have to restrict speech merely because it was a nuisance. That’s about as low a bar as you can set.

    This is not about freedom of speech. Neither is Mr Thapar questioning anyone’s freedom of speech, nor am I questioning his. It’s about the relationship between parliament and the armed forces, as well as accountability to the elected leadership.

    Now we all can decry the quality of our elected leadership; and praise the quality of our military leadership. Even if those stereotypes are valid, it does not in any way imply that the political leadership should shut up and allow the military leadership to have their way. Rather, the argument should be that we must improve the quality of the political leadership, not whittle down their authority.

  3. Major Jaswant Singh’s service may not find space in his narrative, but four decades later, he still wears safari suits with military type pockets and shoulder flaps! The Major, being senior in service to the general, thought it fit to tick him off like this in public.

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