New Delhi, Jan. 8: The vintage brass gun at the gates of a walled bungalow in Lutyens Delhis Rajaji Marg is stingingly cold to the touch in the early winter morning. Three jawans polish its barrel to a gleam despite the fog that hangs heavy.
A spiked speed breaker levels down to let the car in after a security check and a confirmation over a sentrys walkie-talkie. In a workshop at the end of the driveway, soldier-mechanics rev up a convoy of black sedans and offroaders, checking that the engines are finely tuned.
Each vehicle is being washed vigorously. Each of the sedans and utility vehicles have red beacon lights on the roof, registration plates that read Army 1 and a plaque for four metal stars set in red background — the four stars of the only man in the country who can sport them on his collar tabs and epaulettes.
Dew has drenched the sprawling and manicured lawn walled-in behind the motor workshop. More soldiers shout and scurry with walkie-talkies preparing for the imminent departure of the general who lives here. He was to fly to Myanmar.
Behind the portico, in a guestroom, the walls are lined with modernist paintings, sketches, stitch works and woodworks of Ganeshas in different poses.
The corners of the room are taken with wooden shelves lined with trophies: from the Kharga Corps, the Dah Division, the US Army War College, a rare and coveted Ranger label, plaques and mementoes from the Assam Rifles and the Vietnamese military.
The general in a photograph taken in Hanoi is shaking hands with his Vietnamese counterpart. In another, he is in battle fatigues with wife Bharti Singh next to which is a glass bookcase from which one title leaps out: Hunter S. Thompsons The Great Shark Hunt, the first of the American authors four-volume collection that went on to define a style of reportage called Gonzo Journalism.
Army House is not the kind of place money can buy; it rotates its occupants, and it has its quirks.
A kilometre up Rajaji Marg, the road that leads to South Block, is the ministry of defence in whose corridors and high-ceilinged rooms bureaucrats and ministers suspect the current occupant of the official residence of the chief of army staff has taken such a liking to its precincts that he cannot have enough of it.
In the Army House, General V.K. Singh was already in his Olive Greens despite the early hour and the deep winter. The cold does nothing to him for he has chosen half-sleeves. The ribbons on his barrel chest are in perfect parallel lines. His cropped salt-and-pepper hair is so closely combed with a side-parting that not a strand dares go out of place, his handshake is firm as he points to a corner seat and asks for a quick breakfast of grilled vegetarian sandwiches before settling down to the interview.
For all the reports in the media pitting him against a government that believes he is a year older than he claims, the general is absolutely non-confrontationist. But the ease of his demeanour and the bursting self-confidence conceal a hurt, an old acquaintance of his asserts, that goes deep into a soldierly psyche.
The general himself was more eager to talk of his impending visit to Myanmar — the neighbouring country that is being born-again as a democracy (Gen Singh landed in Myanmar on Wednesday). His pet subject transformation of the army is top-of-the-agenda and he talks animatedly about aviation brigades that the army is planning since the Sudarshan Shakti Exercise in December that he conceived.
It is almost as if he were wishing away the niggling problem over his date of birth in the five months that the government has set for him to retire. The comrade of the general insists, however, that he is in a conundrum wondering, to paraphrase Dylan Thomas, whether to go gently into the good night or burn and rage at close of day.
Should he quit and go to court? Should he go to court and then quit? Or should he just resign and forget the row dogging him that threatens to sully an otherwise glorious career? Gen. Singh is the last veteran of a full-fledged war (1971) to rise to be the army chief. He saw action with the Indian Peace Keeping Force in the brutalising war in Sri Lanka (1987-1990).
It is unlikely that men who choose to go and lead other men like themselves to war even if they are professionally paid to do so will be scared easily.
But indignity, old soldiers assert, is a fate worse than death. The old soldier who fought alongside Gen. Singh was livid during a conversation in a Delhi suburb, an hours drive from the Army House. They are calling this man a liar, he rages. He is our army chief. What will the men he commands think of him? That he wants to cling to office like a limpet? he uses a phrase once attributed to a former Prime Minister.
Gen. Singh, he insists, is a victim and not a villain. He was victimised because he went after corrupt predecessors.
In South Block, however, the administration has made up its mind. The ego of the defence establishment was hurt because the general produced certificates from four former chief justices and a former solicitor-general in support of his claim without seeking the government permission. More than one bureaucrat has insinuated that the general had raked up the date of birth issue to seek an extension of tenure.
And in the army, there are hurt egos because the defence minister set a deadline for Gen. Singh to quit office in a reply to Parliament in September. In bland language A.K. Antony said the general has eight months and 23 days of his tenure left. In the army they also insist that the general does not covet the Army House so much that he will fudge his records.
In public the general and the defence minister maintain a genteel camaraderie. They are likely to meet again at a reception in the lawns of the Army House that the army chief customarily hosts on January 15 (Army Day) every year.
But in privately held belief, positions have hardened so much that the general may be seen to be surrendering if he goes meekly. And the government may be seen to be obtuse if it ignores sentiments in the highest echelons of its military.