Business Standard, 16th Nov 13
Courage and Conviction: An Autobiography
By General VK Singh (with Kunal Verma)
Aleph Book Company, New Delhi
In his book “Courage and Conviction”, the country’s most controversial army chief, General VK Singh, follows a tradition of autobiographical immodesty. Of the handful of chiefs who penned memoirs, General JJ Singh titled his book, “A Soldier’s General”. General KV Krishna Rao, more modestly chose the title, “In the Service of the Nation.”
VK Singh’s book will certainly outsell those of his predecessors. It is a no-holds-barred attack on the United Progressive Alliance government, which denied him extra time in office by turning down his plea to revise his date of birth. When he sued his political masters, the Supreme Court was as unsympathetic. Left to lick his wounds, a lame-duck VK Singh treated his remaining four months in uniform as a launch pad into politics, almost taunting the government to sack him. In a letter to the prime minister that was quickly leaked, VK Singh complained that delays in arms purchases had made his army unfit for war; he gave media interviews that roiled civil-military tensions; and attended a public function that was linked with an opposition party. Since he retired, he has associated with Anna Hazare’s dharna and appeared with Narendra Modi at a public rally.
Given his animus and his ambitions it is hardly surprising that VK Singh has lambasted the government. Some of that criticism is deserved, given the government’s neglect of the military over the decades. It is welcome that an army chief has parted the shroud of secrecy that has too long hidden negligence in national security decision-making. Yet, the author’s bias and obvious motivations seriously damage his credibility. How much credence can be placed in the account of a former army chief who has claimed that the army was paying off J&K politicians and then, having seriously eroding their credibility with their constituencies, walked away from that statement?
This untrustworthiness annihilates what could otherwise have been an important book. There is inherent readability in the tale of an army officer who carved out an exceptional career path, and his travails and triumphs through the 1971 war, the Sri Lanka campaign, stints on the line of control (LoC), demanding courses in the United States and high command all the way up to the army chief’s office. Indeed the sections where VK Singh recounts life in the army are the most readable parts of the book. But an agenda keeps resurfacing, with the author projecting himself ham-handedly as a crusader who was evicted because he battled corruption and money-making.
Megalomania might be a strong word, but the author certainly holds himself in high esteem. He describes himself as a Tanwer, “one of the thirty-six ruling races of India.” He recounts how a large cobra entered the house where VK Singh, then one year old, was playing on the floor alone. When word spread, people came running only to find the infant “happily playing with the cobra.” Any resemblance to Krishna and the legend of Kaliya Nag is presumably coincidental.
Hovering like a malevolent phantom over most of the book is VK Singh’s disputed birth certificate, which caused his confrontation with the government. This is so even in accounts of his childhood, spent with his extended family in their village, their “bronze, chiselled faces” giving him confidence that “not one of them… would ever bend with the wind.” This not-so-subtle characterisation foresees the author’s humiliating rebuff from the Supreme Court, where a judge observed, in jest more than seriously, “Wise people are those who move with the winds.”
Just 24 pages into the book, VK Singh brings the issue of his birth date into the open and returns to it with groan-inducing frequency. While presenting his version in detail, he glosses over the big question --- why did he thrice accept the army’s decision on his birth date, only to challenge that later in court? His answer --- poor advice.
It is hard to avoid concluding that the author has a victimisation complex, given the indiscrimination with which he distributes blame, denouncing now one set of people and now another for essentially the same thing. First he blames an earlier army chief, General JJ Singh, for planning a “line of succession”, that required him to retire on a particular day so that he would be succeeded by General Bikram Singh (the current chief). A few pages later, he alleges that he was pushed out by powerful enemies he made in exposing the Sukhna land scam, the Adarsh Housing Society scam, the Tatra vehicle procurement scam and various dodgy arms deals. In a line redolent with delusion, he writes, “I knew I wasn’t suffering from any paranoia… the same people were involved, different circles with overlapping areas of interest, yet with a common core supporting them.”
The author raises important issues relating to the army’s combat readiness and equipment procurement processes, both areas that would benefit from openness and public debate. But VK Singh writes more like a schoolboy than an army chief, making it difficult to take him seriously. Describing the equipment shortages that emerged during the Kargil conflict in 1999, he says “Babus were running around the globe with suitcases of cash, looking for ammunition.”
Making the preposterous allegation that the government allocates the defence budget each year with the specific intention of taking much of it back for populist expenditures, he speculates on the MoD’s reaction after “sabotaging” expenditure one year --- “I am quite sure there must have been lot of clinking of glasses and high fives amidst the powers that be (sic).”
This kind of Pidgin English keeps popping up disconcertingly. Someone worked out a “knock-kneed plan”; his commanding officer gave him “a real rollicking” (meaning bollocking, not a good time). The blame for this gobbledegook rests with Kunal Verma, who VK Singh has written the book with. Verma, a long time military groupie who has been paid crores of rupees from the defence budget to write self-congratulatory coffee-table books, has added little value to the book.
In the final balance, “Courage and Conviction” is worth a close read. It provides interesting accounts of life in the army and a stunning insight into the mind of an army chief who went rogue. There are gripping accounts of the Sri Lanka debacle, the 1984 Operation Blue Star attack on the Golden Temple, the Operation Parakram fiasco and the internal fault lines within the army. The author does not hesitate to allocate blame to well-known names, but always emerges as the good guy himself. General VK Singh clearly believes that more important than making history is to write it.