The General’s birthday lawsuit is a red herring
Much is being said and written, often with great passion, about the controversy over General V K Singh’s age. [See Mint's editorial, Manoj Joshi's article in Mail Today and this report in the New York Times for a background.]
That it has taken the Indian Republic into hitherto uncharted territory is not in doubt. Without real political leadership and competent management of the behemoth called government, it is likely that matters will end up in court. That has happened. If the Supreme Court decides on the issue (or whatever it decides, including referring it to the Armed Forces Tribunal), a legal precedent would be set. Now, both unwritten norms and legal precedents can be decorous and inexpensive ways for organisations to function. But the transition from norms to legal precedents often gets complicated, ugly and dirty. It is a test for the Indian system, and on the face of it, there is no reason to believe that it will fail.
On the public debate itself, the fact is that very little about what happens behind the closed walls of the army headquarters and the defence ministry is in the public domain. Few people outside the defence establishment, and some of those within, know what the real motivations of the various parties involved are. The phrase “those who know, won’t talk; and those who talk don’t know”, is relevant to this case. So we end up with gossip, speculative commentary or an opportunity for people to unleash their own biases and take potshots at their favourite targets.
Does this information asymmetry mean we don’t debate the matter at all? Far from it. It merely means that the issue must be framed in a manner so as to hold to account those in government who ought to know the facts and are accountable to us. In this case, the Defence Minister. What was A K Antony doing all this while and why? That is the governance issue here. The army chief’s age is itself an procedural, administrative or legal matter, but for purposes of overall governance, it is a red herring. The incompetence, inability or unwillingness of the Defence Minister and the Cabinet Committee on Security, and through collective responsibility—the Prime Minister and his Cabinet—to handle this matter before it blew up is the question that we both can and should debate.
Can a government that manages an administrative matter in so cavalier a manner be trusted to manage matters relating to national defence any more effectively?