Book review: The VK Singh manifesto - Broadsword by Ajai Shukla - Strategy. Economics. Defence.

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Friday 15 November 2013

Book review: The VK Singh manifesto

Business Standard, 16th Nov 13

Courage and Conviction: An Autobiography
By General VK Singh (with Kunal Verma)
Aleph Book Company, New Delhi
363 pages
Rs 595/-

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.


  1. A very balanced review indeed Ajai.

  2. The reason why I would believe VK Singh and not Ajai "Track II" Shukla is because the former refused to take a bribe in the Tatra Scam, and the latter appeared on Doordarshan no less, to try and mitigate the role of a former IAF chief involved in the chopper scam by "interviewing" him & oh did I mention that he's also chums with congress' official PR outlet NDTV?

  3. How much did Congress pay you to write that hit-job?

  4. I have privately interviewed many high ranking serving and retired military officers from all the services - every one who have known him since his NDA days state with conviction that Gen VK Singh is an HONEST and capable officer who holds very STRONG VIEWS. Ajay Shukla need not 'read' too much negatively into Gen Singh's Autobiography. Armed Forces problem is that many IAS officers forming a buffer between Government and Forces create problems and shield unsavory practices. It is time that more officers like Gen Singh come forward to clean up the fillth. Shukllas of this world can keep on doing what they are good at.

  5. well written Ajay..balanced and to the point ..
    @Rahul .. I thought V K was good.. however , he acted to political and out of grace.. its not the person its in the uniform .. MOD and Govt can behave polticall however General should be like Sam or Thimmayya.. V K started good..but then acted cheap..I think he should take some PR lessons.
    I saw him on india day period ..Anna Hazre though was lowest Rank in the Army was more graceful then former Chief .

  6. While the book review provided above is well edited however it some how is indicative of a personal bias of the reviewer.
    More focus is being given on an intelligently worded author discreditation rather than an insight into the workings of the actual events taking place.

    The public is interested in the important events and the authors description of them. Not so much as his own character assessment.

    Why is it that military officers cannot put their own personal unimportant vanity and egotistic conflicts and keep the bigger national picture in mind. Why do we , the Indian public have to suffer this as collateral damage?

  7. It is an open secret that during the Kargil war, Indian Army was woefully short of ammunition and had to pay exorbitant price for Bofors gun ammo to South African suppliers. Why the author is showing surprise at this revelation in Gen Singh's book?

  8. Col Shukla,
    In which part of the civilised world a citizen who approaches court for redressal of something he believes is injustice, be called Rogue?

    It is obvious that Gen VKS will write his autobiography from his point of view. In case someone disagrees, come with the alternate truth.

  9. Ajai, if you were less of an apologist for the UPA and INC, it'd be easier to take you seriously. As things stand, your guys are on the way out and the days of your privileged access to defence are going to end as well.

  10. I agree that Gen V K Singh has gotten overboard on this last occasion-namely the J&K Payoff case where he backtracked.

    However, having said that-this is one of the most honest and straight talking Army Chiefs the Indian Army has and will ever get.

    Whatever this officer has come out in public life is true-the woeful shortage of ammunition, the Govt screwing him on his birth date and the Tatra cash offer to name a few. It is also true that the Govt tried its best to malign him-by leaking a letter from the Army Chief to the Defence Minister-the babu who did this is known to everyone in South Block but will not be named for obvious reasons. Lt Col Tejinder did offer him 14 crores to push the Tatra trucks as found out in the CBI investigation but Mr Ajai Shukla will not be interviewing him to ask why he did that, right? ;-). It is common knowledge in South Block that the current Army Chief's wife paved the way for his becoming Army Chief ala her friendship with Maunmohan's wife. But hey, no-one will research that. And after Gen Singh retired, no one complains about the ammunition shortage. Why? Do we have enough ammunition to last us a 90 day war now? Hell no. But it has been pushed under the carpet-which is what the political leadership expects out of the army chief.

    Probably the worst instance was the "coup rumour" where the movement of a couple of army divisions were reported in the Indian Express as a "coup". Did anything happen when this was proved as false? Nopes. Did Mr Ajai Shukla go investigating then why this "coup" rumour was born? Nopes.

    We are a nation of corrupt people and we will get the government, police, media and armed forces we deserve. I can confidently say the anomaly in the Army we had with Gen V K Singh as chief has now been corrected.

    And now back to Mr Shukla's "views" of the world.

  11. when will you stop licking the boots of ur congress masters

  12. Judge and be prepared to be judged !
    Here is one General who was bold enough to speak out on what is wrong with the politico-military set-up.

    To minimize the systemic issue by focusing on the diplomatic and the literary finesse that the General may be lacking in is indicative of a bias against the General and a disservice to defense journalism and the Nation.

  13. General gone rogue? Shukla, what did you barter with Congress in exchange for this hatchet job? Money, a Governor's post or ?

  14. Colonel Ajai Shukla wants us to count the trees and forget about the woods. It would have been a much better review if Colonel Ajai Shukla had dwelled more on the issues of corruption, promotions and vested interests at play rather than the actual flow of words in the book by the General.

    A vested and biased review to say the least.

  15. Ajai it doesn't behoove you to berate a compatriot in the forces. It openly shows the disrespect you harbor to your seniors. This erodes your credibility as a patriotic person and questions your bond with brothers in arms. As an ex-army personnel and a news reporter, you don't go around bad mouthing your own organizations chief. Did you read the news where in a member from Obama's team bad- mouthed him on social media? Also it shows by deriding the English of author, you seem to assume the mantle of English literature professor. No wonder its people like you with misplaced pride that shame the national identity by articulating the mastery of vernacular dialect of England. Its akin to showing pride in speaking fluent Bihari Hindi over Sanskrit or Latin. You are a disgrace to Indians by touting your English credentials. A perfect example of relic of British Raj. Your opinions shouldn't be taken seriously in this blog, they are only good for causal read. I will wait for you to write an Autobiography and then see how many read it for its perfect English?

  16. What is your expert opinion about Mullah Omar's or OBLs English or Chinese Generals English? Do you think Indian Armed forces Generals or service members with perfect English communication skills such as yours will make India militarily successful? I am awed by how much importance you place on English communications as opposed to domain expertise. Would you have criticized the General's Tamil were it written in that language? You made a big fool of yourself with this blog entry showing your word editing journalist skills.

  17. I am certain your fore-fathers were speaking perfect Farsi and Urdu during tyrannical Mughal rule.

  18. We all carry albatross of our personal biases, which is true in case of VKS and his critics too. What country needs to look at are the `facts' and hold the ministers and officials responsible for their `action' as well as `inaction'. VKS claims that the critical post of JS (Acquisition) in MoD lay vacant for seven months, then Antony must be held accountable. The allegation by VKS that Arora and Budwar have been sidelined by JJS to make way for some one can also be probed and veracity checked and if JJS is guilty then let him face the music. Similarly culprit for leakage of confidential letter from VKS to MMS can also be easily found out. Let the responsibility be fixed and guilty punished. If the media persons are really keen on serving the nation, let them follow up on these three accusations and pin the guilty down - be it VKS or anyone else!

  19. I wish if he had listed out his achievements as Chief. As far as eradication of corruption is concerned; his only purported achievement,it seems Sukhna issue (there was no land scam involved, i believe) was to fix the General (head of Personnel Dept) who did not approve his date of birth, Adarsh scam was raised by Navy but he took on to target Deepak Kapur who did not approve his date of birth issue and Tatra scam ( not proved so far)was raised when he got caught by head of Defence Intelligence snooping on Defence Ministry regarding his date of birth issue.He only broke lot of 'China' and will only be remembered for his 'courage and conviction' to get his 'date of birth' altered while lowering image of the Army and the office of Chief of Army in addition to putting a stop to all Army acquisitions.I wish he had never happened to our great Army.

  20. From the fact that you're willing to publish comments on here ripping you apart, you seem like a rational man to me.

    So why don't you work instead at a honest news source like NitiCentral instead of Business Standard and NDTV where you're forced to write these character assassinations?

  21. The reviewer is biased against the author is evident, in fact he is biased against people who are not Congresswallas. Pity the Tv moghuls have not debated the contents, but they too are afraid of the UPA hatchet

  22. To all the folks who think that any criticism of VK Singh can only come from UPA spokesman, here are indisputable facts -

    1. Col Shukla is spot on when he says that the general displays an astounding degree of pomposity. But to be fair Gen Singh belongs to a generation where being being puffed up did not raise as many eyebrows. His predecessors too were verbose in self-praise. Its a pity though that that four star generals in the Indian Army feel need to preen.

    2. With regard to being a 'Rogue' general, to all his fans I ask - What kind of serving army officer subverts the constitution he's sworn to defend by actively intervening in the political process? And assuming that circumstances demanded flexible morals, what kind of officer then sells out such a covert operation to the media, jeopardizing the careers of those involved, and blowing the cover on valuable intelligence assets? To top it all what kind of man makes such an assertion, puts his credibility on the line and then promptly sounds a retreat with a total retraction, when the consequences become evident?

    Being a blowhard can be excused, but a rogue is an apt description, for an officer who acts before he thinks.

    - Vivek

  23. What kind of a government that refuses to settle a simple DOB clarification on the merits of the case?

    What kind of a defence minister who is unable to arrive at a correct DOB of his army chief?

    What kind of a shut mouth PM who sits tight through out the controversy without saying a word,

    Sonia gandhi at the age of 50 plus misrepresented many facts in her affidavit to election commisiion including educational qualificatio. For the past 10 years she is the deciding authority on who occupies the PM post.

    All these things are proper in constitution I suppose. How could a man like V.K.Singh who put his life in the line of fire for his country and exposed TAATRA scam go soft on these guys?

    In fact if he has gone soft I would have clubbed him as one of those suckers who get everything from the system and fail to do a whistle blower job.

    On military no promotion is based on one's DOB. So it is mischievious to insist that V.K. Singh accepted promotion with undue favors with another DOB and then tried to change it once reaching the chief's office,

  24. @ersakthivel

    Translation: Because our political leaders' behave in a certain manner, its too much to expect that a decorated four star general of the Indian Army confirm to a higher standard?

    Why did the good general have to go and blab away to the media about the Army bribing Kashmiri politicians? Either it was false, in which case there was no justification for cheap mudslinging. Or it was true, in which case he ought to have kept his gob shut instead of jeopardizing ongoing intelligence operations.

    But I have no doubt that you'll continue justify this behavior with 'but see MMS did X', or 'Antony did Y', or 'Obama did Z'. None of which excuses Gen VK Singh's indeed 'rogue-like' behavior.

  25. Colonel, do you think that leaking Gen Singh's letter was a rogue operation by the Govt.?

    Do you honestly think that Gen Singh was trying to topple the govt?

    If not, then who was responsible for the mudslinging on Gen. Singh? and lastly, can you please find out and reveal the names of those "rogue" elements in the Govt. who were behind the above mentioned dirty tricks, now that you have termed Gen Singh as a rouge general we expect some balance there.

  26. Vivek, its best you leave those infantile arguments to BR which you infest. As an Indian citizen, unlike you, I prefer my verbose Gen Singh who attempted to clean up the system to armchair admirals like you who live abroad and posture as great protectors of Indian values and what Indians should and should not do. Singh did everything he should have to shake up a corrupt, ossified, nepotist structure. More power to him

  27. It is worrisome when an Army Chief goes "rogue". Given the recent "outburst"/tantrums of a Bharat Ratna awardee-never mind the retraction/clarifications- one suspects that the top echelons of our Babudom/Directing structure is peopled with "Child minds".

    It is down right dangerous to have the Armed Forces humiliated and interfered with. Have you seen the stupid schoolboys at a zoo pelting the big cats with Orange peels? The Bureaucracy has been engaged in a long and unnecessary bun fight with the Forces. For God's sake back off! The General's English or self justification ( as if the (Menons and Mathurs of North Block don't!)is not important. His grievances have to be inquired into in all and transparent sincerity and condign punishment visited on whosoever is guilty.

  28. Dear Sir,
    A balanced review is always refreshing to read and it is indeed a well written piece. However I feel your personal biases do get highlighted at times when you declare him a 'rogue'. While all incidents, whether good/bad, during his tenure are debatable I'm sure the Army and the MoD/govt are entitled to conduct enquiries and would do so if he is perceived to be culpable.I also am of the opinion that a govt with such scant regard for soldiers and national security (full spectrum covering national security) deserves to be dealt with more firmly, which only the General had the gumption to do. However ill advised he was!!
    I do enjoy reading your articles for the perspective and content .
    Regards as always,

  29. I fully agree with the review written by Ajai Sukla. However, it is sad to note that the ex-chief has blamed the entire Army fraternity and justified his actions. Well then the system has thrown up the wrong person to the helm of affairs.His actions as a junior officer (capt/maj) were unbecoming,"what is he trying to justify/prove now". He should seriously do soul searching. God Bless him.

  30. Mr Ajai Shukla has only carried out a book review and given an opinion which needs to be respected.For those who have not read the book please go and read it first.The highlight of Gen VK Singh's career has been the age issue and since people by and far are against the establishment they identify with anyone who takes on the govt of the day.However the case in point is that it was a sad saga of misjudgment and personal interest above all and not about the organisation.Since we live in cynical times it is second nature to doubt everything around us.A book should not fall trap to self glorification drive especially by a General who has headed the second largest army in the world.Secondly it should not become a tool to hammer his opponents without any substantiated proof because soldiers are gracious even in defeat. Courage and Conviction are not two virtues which are not highlighted after you read the book.

  31. 'Vivek, its best you leave those infantile arguments to BR which you infest. As an Indian citizen, unlike you, I prefer my verbose Gen Singh who attempted to clean up the system to armchair admirals like you who live abroad and posture as great protectors of Indian values and what Indians should and should not do. Singh did everything he should have to shake up a corrupt, ossified, nepotist structure. More power to him

    I'm an resident Indian citizen so spare me the drivel. Next you'll be accusing Col Shukla of being an NRI/PIO.

    Either explain the good generals foot-in-mouth behavior and his self proclaimed complicity in bribing elected officials or refrain from this idiotic portrayal of him as an infallible totem of all that is holy.

  32. Col Shukla: Congratulations on a well written book review.

    It's fascinating that Gen VK Singh found courage and conviction to stand up for what is right only when he found himself cornered for his intellectual dishonesty at the fag end of his career. What was he doing all along? Piggybacking his way to the top on the "nepotist structure" (sic) his stooges claim he has shaken up.

    Not only is his honour and integrity in question because he manipulated his date of birth; but also because he lacked courage and conviction as an officer of the Indian Army to call a spade a spade and fight the "system", except when it suited him towards the end of his career.

    Shortage of ammunition and equipment in the Army is not new. There have been many brilliant officers who sacrificed their careers by standing up for country and principles, fighting the rot from the first day of service till the last; and yet they hold no grudge for having being overlooked for inferior crap.

    My grandfather was one of the first officers to take on the so called "ossified" brass and babu log for upgradation of tanks to bring us up to par with our neighbour, way back in the 60s. He suffered the backlash, fought the war with inferior equipment; but he stayed the course and got the job done. He loved his country and regiment too much to sulk and cry foul. And he certainly wasn't the only officer to stand up for the right thing. There were many before, and many since. Despite being brilliant officers, and principled to boot, none of them carried a personal grudge after retirement. An Indian Army Officer never does. He is consistent in his principles from day one; and he lives it. The opposite is for lesser men like Gen Singh - sadly, a man with a twisted sense of personalised, vengeful and ever changing ethics; the buffoonery notwithstanding.

    Note: I know it's ridiculous, but language aside, just for academic debate, compare Singh with Cariappa, Thimayya and Manekshaw. The man is not a patch to them. I fail to see him as chief material. The "nepotist" (sic) 'you scratch my back, i'll scratch yours' structure, of course, cares two hoots for OLQs. Well.. as you sow, so shall you reap.

    - Very much an Indian. A proud, patriotic Indian at that.

  33. If you read the comments posted above you understand why corrupt people get away with anything and everything in this country.

    How can a man who has fudged his date of birth become the COAS? This shows that the corrupt MoD actually wants equally corrupt and pliable officers to rise up the military hierarchy so that no one questions their theft in the name of "defense". Promoting people of corrupt character and lesser calibre has boomeranged in the form of Gen V.K.Singh whose cheapness knows no bounds as being the head of world's 2nd largest army he went to court to get an extension of his service on the plea of wrong date of birth. We see such incidents when people pass out of schools not when people retire as COAS. His tenure has sullied the already tarnished image of the Indian Army.

    Also it seems the BJP langur brigade is very active in protecting the image of a thoroughly imbecile Army general.

    Biggest threat to the nation is not China or Pakistan, but a system that promotes corrupt incapable people for pelf while victimising the honest and competent.

  34. @admini
    most controversial general has made high jump in politics. From anna movement to bjp and from bjp to become union minister. everyone use anna hazare
    sandeep gupta


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