Saint Antonys dilemma

Written by Nistula Hebbar | Nistula Hebbar | Updated: Apr 3 2012, 07:37am hrs
Defence minister AK Antony has been having a bad week. For that part, hes been having a bad month. The man giving him sleepless nights is none other than army chief General VK Singh, a man who has as much a squeaky clean reputation with regard to graft, as Antony himself. These two honest men were supposed to help clean up the procurement process in defence, restore faith in the system and generally remove the aura of opacity around defence procurement.

That hasnt happened. Instead, the Generals date of birth became an issue, the defence ministry returned R3,000 crore of unspent money to the exchequer and the Budget session was derailed after the General revealed that hed been offered a bribe to clear contracts for some faulty equipment.

That, however, is only half the story. AK Antonys reactions tell the other half. It has been muted, to say the least, with the defence minister steadfastly refusing to sack the General despite a carte blanche by the opposition.

Antony, contrary to his performance in Parliament this week, is known to be a tough nut. Someone who had the guts as chief minister, to ban arrack in a spirited state like Kerala and stare down a strike by government trade unions in that state, is hardly a babe in the woods.

Having lost his father early in life, Antony is self-made, and educated himself with the aid of scholarships and odd jobs, entering student politics at the same time. His persona, through his three doomed terms as Keralas chief minister, has been of taking decisions, however unpopular they make him. He very famously declared that he had denied even his mother a favour when she had asked that he arrange a job transfer of her other son from Mumbai to Kerala. He was saint Antony alright, but a saint in the mould of St George the dragon slayer rather than a suffering martyr.

He started off his stint in the defence ministry well enough. He defended his spectrum turf against the finance and telecom ministries, asking for a fair deal for giving up the defence ministrys claim, sanctioned the prosecution of officers in graft cases in the Sukhna land scam and Adarsh housing society, and brought in as army chief a man with a spotless reputation for fighting graft.

So what changed this time Why does the principal image of Antony as defence minister have to be of a man who reacted by holding his head in his hands when General Singh told him that hed been offered a bribe of R14 crore by a retired Lt General And why not go after the General for not taking action

Those who know Antony well say that his reactions have actually been typical of him. A shrewd politician, Antony is aware of the prevailing hawa of anti-graft sentiment, and doesnt want to add fuel to the fire. Any move to sack the General, or any more skeletons out of the defence ministry, and the Congress could well revisit Bofors, some say.

In this situation, however, they seem to be giving him too much credit. As a parade of retired officers of the armed forces air grievances against the defence bureaucracy and their code of honour, while an equally aggrieved political class calls for the army chiefs head for discussing things best left behind closed doors in public, AK Antony hardly comes across as someone with a plan.

AK Antony is a shrewd politician and yet even he couldnt foresee how a controversy over a date of birth could envelope him in a corruption scam, with the very relations between government bureaucracy and the armed forces being discussed on national television ad nauseam.

As Bernstein, a writer who is particularly fondly quoted by army men, once said, to base your tactics on assumptions is incorrect, as assumptions need not be true. The defence ministers tactics have been outmanoeuvred by the angry army chief. It will need more than a halo for Saint Antony to get out of this one.

nistula.hebbar@expressindia.com