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Bad or worse: Congress weighs options

New Delhi, March 29: The Congress is “deeply anguished” by the controversies surrounding the army chief but seems in a dilemma about taking any action.

Party leaders are assessing which would be worse for the government: continuing with General V.K. Singh for two more months till he retires, or sacking him without further delay.

“There are no desirable choices; we are stuck in a hopeless situation where the options are either bad or worse,” a senior Congress leader said, revealing that the government would revisit the subject after the Brics summit ended.

“We certainly don’t want the row to escalate when the Chinese Premier and other heads of foreign countries are here,” another leader said.

Those in the Congress are not viewing the letter leak controversy in isolation: they feel the atmosphere of bitterness may have its roots in the controversy over the general’s date of birth.

Most party leaders feel that the general has failed to show adequate appreciation of the delicate relationship between the civilian leadership and the defence forces.

Sources said senior government leaders, including defence minister A.K. Antony, were disinclined to take the extreme step of sacking the general.

There are not too many takers, either, for the option of sending the army chief on forced leave. Most government leaders would prefer to wait for the inquiry report on the leak of the letter.

Some party functionaries, however, feel that inaction would send out a wrong suggestion that the government is weak or indecisive.

However, even those Congress leaders who are advocating a tough line are full of praise for Antony’s “mature” handling of the controversies so far. “We are lucky to have him as defence minister at this difficult hour,” a source said.

In private conversations, many Congress leaders question the general’s decision to go public with the alleged bribe offer and to forward a Trinamul MP’s letter against a retired officer to the CBI. They suspect this would not have happened had the government settled the date of birth controversy to the general’s liking.

However, the party has asked its functionaries not to speak publicly on these issues although one MP, Harshvardhan, has shot off a letter to the Prime Minister demanding the army chief’s dismissal.

Harshvardhan, a member of Parliament’s consultative committee on defence, wrote: “In the interest of the country and the army, I urge you to sack this loudmouthed general in the belief that you would dismiss this motor-mouth army chief without delay.”

The Congress’s official response provided a glimpse of its unease. Party spokesperson Renuka Chaudhary said: “We showed restraint. Our sharafat (decency) should not be taken as our weakness.”

Asked whether the Congress was warning the army chief, she tried to shift the focus to the media, arguing that many people, including journalists, presumed the government was weak.

But Renuka’s remarks continued to reflect the party’s disapproval of the general’s behaviour. While she asserted that no party in India would compromise on defence preparedness, she added: “It is ridiculous to suggest that every nut and bolt is procured by the ministry.”

In reference to the deficiencies cited by the general, she said the army was “autonomous at many levels”.

Chaudhary also provided a hint of the party’s mind on the general when she recalled that her father (a retired air force officer) always thought that national interest was more important than “indulging oneself”.