The government’s announcement of LtGen Bipin Rawat as the next army chief, superseding distinguished seniors like Gen Bakshi and Gen Hariz, has raised a hornet’s nest. And brings to memory supersession of Lt Gen Sinha by Gen Vaidya in the summer of 1983.
When the Congress goes ballistic about the present government’ s motives, one can only smirk in mischief, as Mrs Gandhi had also superseded three judges to make Justice ANRay, the CJI, in 1973. There was a certain method in this madness. In case of the Supreme Court judges, it was the perception that the three superseded judges had the temerity to question the supremacy of the Parliament in the Keshavanand Bharti Case 193. On a subterranean level, the real reason was their intransigence to bite the bullet of socialism; and be not committed enough to the cause of the hoi polloi.
This prompted Nani Palkhiwala, the famous lawyer, to observe that the judges owe their allegiance to the Constitution and not to the party in power.
Serendipity, Lt Gen Sinha,( who passed away recently) was also a fiercely independent minded officer. He was the best cadet of his batch and had a penchant to stand for soldiers’ rights. Free ration to soldiers announced on 26th January 1983 is a testimony to his popularity, even now. Post voluntary retirement he had settled down in Patna and was a regular visitor to the AN Sinha Institute library, when I happened to run in to him several times. He was most erudite and allergic to gossip. In one rare moment of candour, however, I dragged him in to a brief discussion on the real reasons for his supersession. He said: “The Delhi darbar does not like naysayers. And we should never tinker with seniority, unless there are grave allegations.” For him the apolitical nature of the Army was paramount and should be free from the canker of cronyism.
It’s indeed an irony that he joined politics soon after became a Janata party MP of Patna and later Governor of J&K. He had a facile pen as he used to write fascinating edits in the Asian Age.
Notwithstanding his political crossover, what he said on that dusky evening on the forecourts of ANSinha Institute still rings a chord in my memory: Do not tinker with merit with specious reasoning, when the senior most has no skeleton to hide. And do not encourage lobbying.
In the present case of supersession, it is certainly the present government, which has much to camouflage, which goes beyond the facile defence of strategic exposure.
In the case of the Supreme Court, stung by the supersession bullet, the judges showed rare degree of solidarity by upholding the basic structure doctrine, which cannot be tinkered with by the Parliament; like Secularism, Federalism, Separation of Powers and independent of the Judiciary.
Farid Zakaria calls it constitutional liberalism which goes beyond mere conduct of free and fair elections in a democracy. He observes how nearly 50% of the democratically elected nations practice illiberal democracy by trumping up nationalism and adapt extremely nihilistic attitude towards genuine contrarian view point.
In the binary prism that these ruling elite look at major issues they try to snuff out opposition by parroting patriotism as their paternity rights. This makes democratic discourse impossible as it is happening in India of late. As John Foster Dulles, US Secretary of State and the arch of enemy of communism used to observe: You are either with us or against us.
There are popular gossips that Ajit Doval, the NSA, has facilitated this catapult of Lt Gen Rawat. The armoured corps is peeved that they have been again upstaged by an officer from the Infantry Corps.
But the real debate is far deeper. While the SC with its Constitutional armour could repulse the committment badge, the party in power wanted them to wear, the present supersession in Army will surely encourage lobbying in the defence forces. They are the last lampposts to preserve a nation’s sovereignty and preempt possible vivisection from within by subscribe elements. By playing politics with a predominantly apolitical but impeccable professional entity, India’s credentials as a constitutional democracy have taken a body blow!
Prof SN Misra teaches Constitutional Law
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