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India Today, April 12, 1999
April 12, 1999



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FIFTH COLUMN
Mr Mutinous

Contrary to what Sonia and Jaya say Bhagwat is no hero.

By Tavleen Singh

Few things in our politically troubled times have shocked me more deeply than the amorality and irresponsibility with which Sonia Gandhi and her new best friend, Jayalalitha Jayaram, have been demanding that a joint parliamentary committee (JPC) be set up to investigate the dismissal of the navy's former chief.

Why is the demand amoral and irresponsible? Because anyone who has examined even casually the events leading to Admiral Vishnu Bhagwat's dismissal should know what an inquiry will probably end up proving: the real mistake was that Bhagwat was made navy chief in the first place. He would not have, if a Congress defence minister had not chosen to promote him despite his having taken his boss -- the then navy chief -- to court on charges that amounted to treason.

In the armed forces, this kind of behaviour is usually regarded as gross indiscipline. Bhagwat, had he not been rescued by Sharad Pawar, would have disappeared into obscurity. But today his name makes national headlines, it brings whole sessions of Parliament to a halt and inspires so much confidence in Jayalalitha that she wants him reinstated. In her case, we can afford to be a little generous. She is after all only a provincial politician, as can be seen from her pronouncements this past week on foreign policy.

But what about Mrs S. Gandhi, who seeks to become our prime minister? Surely she should have bothered to find out a little more about Bhagwat before she decided to make him her hero No 1. Before she decided to waste taxpayers' money on an investigation that will end up washing a lot of naval dirty linen in public. But I understand from my own investigations she is motivated mainly by revenge for the Bofors scandal, in which she believes George Fernandes was needlessly vocal against her late husband. So he must be punished even if the country ends up being punished as well.

Revenge is very much part of the Bhagwat story as well. The story begins, as I have already said, with his having taken the navy chief to court in 1990. He charged him and several Defence Ministry officials with being "stooges" of the United States. Anyone who knows anything about the armed forces will tell you that this is a pretty outrageous thing to do. It becomes even more outrageous when you consider that Bhagwat dropped his court case as soon as he was saved by Pawar.

During the time that he was involved in his litigation against the navy chief, Bhagwat unsuccessfully sought the help of a certain officer by the name of Harinder Singh. This was a man with an outstanding, unblemished record in the navy. A man who had been regularly recommended for the highest promotion. But Bhagwat appears never to have forgotten that he had failed to help him when he needed help. So when Bhagwat became navy chief, he seemed to have decided to punish Singh by changing his record from outstanding to adverse.

Unfortunately, he reckoned without Fernandes becoming defence minister. Fernandes, famous for his sense of fair play particularly when it comes to underdogs, studied the case and concluded that an outstanding officer was being crucified for things he had not done. When he tried to intervene though Bhagwat informed the Defence Ministry that it had neither the information nor the authority to do so.

Now excuse me please. Hello? This is India, not Pakistan. We have, mercifully, never been in a situation where military authority supersedes political. So it is more than slightly eccentric of Bhagwat to have imagined that an exception could be made in his case.

It was not the first time he had crossed swords with Fernandes. It had happened earlier when the defence minister tried to intervene in the case of a naval officer who continued to thrive despite the CBI finding him guilty of misconduct. Fernandes asked questions and was told off by Bhagwat.

It was such persistent defiance of civilian authority that finally resulted in his dismissal. The mistake Fernandes made was to not go public with his version. He appears to be saving his stuff for Parliament, when the "uproar" abates and he is allowed to speak. It is typical of Atal Bihari Vajpayee's Government that he should do this -- since few in it have understood politics in the age of television.

At this point I must mention that in the Bhagwat story we in the media have been fairly partisan players. We have supported the admiral and his wife and we have done it without even trying to find out whether there is another side to the story. We have been on Bhagwat's side even when, after his dismissal, his wife went on television to charge the Government with communalism. And then repeated her charge in several interviews.

So one-sided has been our coverage that nobody has made a serious effort to find out why Vice-Admiral Singh filed a redressal of grievances petition in the Calcutta High Court in which he charged Bhagwat with being communal. And made a particularly nauseating reference to his wife being half-Muslim. This petition has been published but nobody has tried to find out what drove Singh to make these charges. Nor has anyone pointed out that he withdrew his foolish remarks and apologised for them.

Nobody comes out of the Bhagwat affair a hero. The defence minister should have found a way of dealing with the navy chief without needing to dismiss him. The prime minister should have had something to say publicly on the matter. The media could have been less partisan. But all that a JPC is likely to achieve is more washing of dirty linen in public.

Is this what Jayalalitha and Sonia want? Perhaps they need to find out a little more about their hero -- unless this is only part of the game to bring down the Government.

 

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