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Gap between Antony, service chiefs

New Delhi, July 28: The growing disconnect between A.K. Antony and the services came to the fore for the third time in two months when the defence minister told the IAF chief that he was displeased with remarks on Indian nuclear strike capabilities during the Pakistan foreign minister’s visit.

Air Chief Marshal Pradeep Vasant Naik was told yesterday his statement that India will retaliate massively to any nuclear strike by Pakistan was in keeping with government policy but not with the mood that Delhi wanted to create for the talks between foreign ministers S.M. Krishna and Hina Rabbani Khar.

Antony was himself restrained in his remarks on Pakistan on Tuesday when the air chief marshal made the statement at a news conference. The defence minister had said that same morning at a ceremony marking 12 years since the Kargil war (with Pakistan) that he did not want to say anything that would vitiate the atmosphere for talks.

The air chief’s statement was also frowned upon by the foreign office. At a briefing yesterday, foreign secretary Nirupama Rao was asked to comment on his statement by a Pakistani journalist.

Rao did not refer to it directly but said: “As far as the remarks that you referred to (are concerned), I would only bring you back centre stage to the discussions held between the two foreign ministers today, the very positive content of those discussions, the kind of direction that has been set as a result of these discussions. We are talking about peaceful co-existence that we need to see established between the two countries for the benefit of the two peoples. So, everything we say must keep in mind the aim that is common for both our peoples.”

The military top brass does not really speak out in public. In any case, they do so on far fewer occasions than ministers, but even then there is a friction with the civilian leadership now that is hard to ignore.

In May, after army chief General V.K. Singh said again in reply to a question that his force had the capabilities to conduct the kind of operation that the US commandos did to track and kill Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad, Antony had told the service chiefs to reduce interacting with the media.

However, Air Chief Marshal Naik repeated on Tuesday what General Singh had said in May that Indian forces have developed surgical strike capabilities.

In the meanwhile, the row over the army chief’s date of birth has come to a head.

Last week, Antony ordered the army to accept May 10, 1950, as General Singh’s date and year of birth. The general’s matriculation certificate shows that it is May 10, 1951, and he had been asking for the army records to be corrected for many years.

Antony has also stopped the army chief from going to Singapore to attend the US Army co-hosted Pacific Army Chiefs Conference after two appeals, ostensibly because Delhi’s defence establishment does not want to convey the impression that it is aligned with the US.

But General Singh’s predecessor, General (retired) Deepak Kapoor had attended the conference both as chief and vice-chief.

Also, General Singh himself proudly sports a tag on his uniform that identifies him as “ranger”, an honour given to him in the US after he went through the arduous course in US military establishments.

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