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Upright Generals

Editorial |

It would be a low blow to deem the defence minister responsible for the snowballing controversy over deficient budgetary allocations: yet upon Mrs Nirmala Sitharaman will devolve the responsibility of convincing the armed forces that the government accords due priority ~ rather than lip-service ~ to their accumulated needs.

That assignment will require a lot more competence than the political stridency which she might appear to relish. Her task has been made more onerous after two Generals, one serving and the other who wears a political hat after retirement, have been upright enough to place the issue in a national perspective courtesy the parliamentary standing committee on defence.

It is rare for as senior an officer as the Vice Chief of the Army Staff to be as straightforward and realistic as Lt. Gen Sarath Chand was when he spoke to the MPs “straight from the shoulder”.

The influence of politics on the forces would tend to preclude anything that might appear critical of a government incapable of accepting criticism as honest-opinion/assessment, and smells a rat when the bugles do not sound a complimentary fanfare.

Maybe the Vice Chief took his cue from what two three-star colleagues had recently stated at a conclave in Panjab University, they declined to echo the belligerent rhetoric of the political leadership.

The “other” General in focus is the chairman of the parliamentary panel: though a BJP member of the Lok Sabha (and a former chief minister), Maj.

Gen. BC Khanduri (retd.) did not attempt to dilute the Vice Chief’s “testimony” when presenting the committee’s report ~ though fully aware that it would become a “public document”.

Doing so also called for distinct political courage, and has helped in enhancing the credibility of parliamentary committees that are often seen as reflecting the political leanings of their chairman.

True that the media – and this newspaper – had pointed to the budgetary shortcomings earlier, now those have been duly authenticated.

However, the million-dollar question remains whether Mrs Sitharaman and the standing committee wield adequate authority to pressure North Block into loosening its purse-strings, desist from slashing defence expenditure only to keep fiscal deficits under control.

For far too long has the “sacred cow” actually been sacrificed at the altar of financial jugglery, and specious arguments advanced why three per cent of GDP cannot be “reserved” for defence.

The demand is not political, previous governments have also given the “uniforms” short shrift. It is not a question of allocations being subsequently enhanced to “vindicate” the two Generals (maybe the minister too), but the government shifting its priorities from posturing to genuine military reform and upgrade.

For the picture painted by the Vice Chief, and projected by the standing committee is downright scary: a picture that will not be erased by click “PR”, seemingly pliable “Chiefs”, and quick-fix politicians.