All is not well at South Block, still

New Delhi, April 3 (IANS) The acrimony and bad blood between Indian Army chief, Gen. V.K. Singh, and the defence ministry headed by A.K. Antony may seem to have temporarily cooled off after conciliatory noises from both sides, but all is not well between the civilian and military establishment at South Block.

The tension between the two - and their offices - is quite palpable in the seat of the defence ministry and the army headquarters, despite both Antony and Gen. Singh voicing sentiments to the contrary in public.

If the "schism", to borrow a word from the army chief himself, is growing, then the blame should go to both Antony and Gen. Singh for pushing it to limits and for not weeding out those fomenting trouble for them. And this uneasy relationship has not helped decision-making in the defence ministry and the armed forces, or in taking forward some critical reforms and policy initiatives, well informed sources told IANS.

Antony is definitely "hurt" with the recent developments, caused by Gen. Singh's claims of a retired lieutenant general offering him a bribe of Rs.14 crore to clear a deal for "sub-standard" trucks and that he promptly keeping Antony in the know.

This led to Antony facing an attack from the opposition. Known as "Mr. Clean" and "St. Antony", the 71-year-old Congressman's carefully built incorruptible image was shaken, if not stirred. He was almost in tears, when he defended himself in the Rajya Sabha.

That anguish came out in the form his cryptic remarks that he would not reveal his "personal feelings" about the tussle with the army chief.

His aide though revealed, speaking metaphorically, the secret of how his boss felt: "Doctors have informed him that he has pain in the neck and that he has to suffer it."

A senior bureaucrat in the ministry said: "He (Antony) is still angry and is not willing to let go of the issue." But he did not elaborate, suggesting there could be more to come in the coming days.

The feeling is appears to be mutual and starched at the army headquarters as well. "We just want this two months to get over quickly and without any further trouble," a senior army officer, a close aide of Gen Singh, told IANS, who said he would not like to be identified.

The office is worried of "repercussions" on people like him after the general lays down office on May 31.

There have been a series of tug-of-war between the two sides with snubs and counter-snubs between the defence ministry and the army, since the Supreme Court decided on Gen. Singh's date of birth on Feb 10, virtually upholding the government's stand that for all official purposes and to determine his service tenure, 1950 will be the year of birth.

The rejection of the army chief's recommendation of appointment of Director General of Military Operations Lt. Gen. A.K. Choudhary, as the director general of Assam Rifles, was also objected to by the defence ministry as it did not have the approval of the defence secretary or a competent civilian authority.

Gen. Singh, who is popular among the men and women he commands as an upright officer with an unblemished service record, has just about two months to retire on May 31, as per the retirement warning letter reportedly issued to him in February.

This retirement warning letter was leaked to the media just five days ahead of the government naming present Eastern Army Commander Lt. Gen. Bikram Singh as the army chief-designate, unusually a month before it is normally announced, to leave no doubts on who will succeed the incumbent.

Yes, the army chief did precipitate matters by moving the Supreme Court over his age row in January. But the latest in the bitter saga has been Antony's direction Monday to the army to set right its in-house acquisition processes to fix accountability for slippages, even as the ministry cleared military modernisation plans for the next 15 years.

This is seen as the defence minister's attempt at putting the blame for the delays in acquisitions-a corollary that emerges from the gaps in defence preparedness that the army chief so diligently pointed out to both Antony and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in a letter-at the army's doorsteps.

Just last Thursday, Antony had claimed that all the three services chiefs-Gen. Singh included-enjoyed the confidence of the government and this was reciprocated by the army chief, who praised Antony at a conference of ex-servicemen in Gurgaon during the weekend, apart from issuing two statements to select media that some "rogue elements" were trying to cause a wedge between him and Antony, whereas all is hunky dory between the two.

If the trust hasn't diminished, why should the government cut short both Gen. Singh's delegation to Nepal and the number of days he proposed to stay in Kathmandu, just three days before he was leaving to the neighbouring country?

The Indian Army chief is attending a two-day regional disaster management and counter-terrorism meet to be chaired by his Nepalese counterpart beginning April 4. Gen. Singh was the stay for two more days to hold a bilateral meeting with his counterpart and for signing of a bilateral agreement on military assistance. The later two-day part of the visit has been cancelled by the defence ministry, apart from withdrawing the delegation that was to accompany the army chief for the purposes originally listed.

The genesis of the "trust deficit" between the two sides is obviously the age row that festered for long. But the actions of the defence ministry since the Feb 10 apex court settling the age issue for the government, saw the government snubbing the army chief on nearly a dozen occasions. Or at least attempts have been made to send the message across to Gen. Singh that he put in his papers or go on leave.

Before this Nepal trip being nipped, the defence ministry had nixed the army chief's four-day visit to Israel in February. The cancellation of the Israel visit came close on the heels of his return from United Kingdom, where he gone just two days after the Supreme Court verdict.

Then came the virtual rejection of the army chief's "transformation" plans for the 1.13-million force. Now, that ambitious plan of the army chief, who as the Kolkata-based Eastern Army Commander pioneered it, will have to await his successor before it sees the light of the day and so will the formal Israel visit of an Indian army chief.

Not only this policy proposed by Gen. Singh has gone into cold storage. His request for a change in the promotion policy for senior-level army officers from the existing selection system as well as the practice to bifurcate major generals and lieutenant generals into 'command' and 'staff' streams, which were implemented by his predecessor Gen. Deepak Kapoor in 2009, has been pushed to the law ministry for further bureaucratic spin.

Gen. Singh's interviews to the media on the bribe offer from a truck dealer's representative, identified as Lt. Gen. (retired) Tejinder Singh by Antony in parliament while quoting the army chief, and the alleged leak of his letter to the prime minister on the gaps in defence preparedness have definitely angered politicians and retired bureaucrats, even making them call for his sacking and forcing him to go home on forced leave.

But there have been leaks from the defence ministry too. Take for example the hullabaloo over the alleged bug planted in Antony's office and the blame placed on the Military Intelligence, which is under the army chief. The defence ministry later denied there was any bug in the defence minister's most secure South Block office.

A day later, though, there was another leak in the form of an "anonymous complaint" that an 'off-the-air interceptor' equipment was used to listen into conversations of the country's top security brass, including Antony, at the peak of the age controversy.

No confirmation on this snooping episode has come from any official in the defence ministry or even a denial, except the one from the army headquarters, which blamed the same retired lieutenant general, involved in the bribe offer episode, for "planting" these stories in the media. Gen. Singh also separately dismissed the allegations as fiction.

(N.C. Bipindra can be contacted at nc.bipindra@ians.in)