The dreaded 'c'-word has rarely been uttered in connection with the Indian Army because it is supposed to have inherited in full measure the professional traditions of its colonial mentors about the military being subservient to the civil authorities. Hence, the idea of a coup d'etat has always been deemed to be alien to its mindset.
That does not mean fears about what happens with distressing frequency in neighbouring Pakistan being repeated in India haven't been expressed. For instance, according to a biography of Field Marshal K.M. Cariappa written by his son, the retired commander-in-chief, as the post was known then, was appointed as India's high commissioner to Australia in 1953 to forestall such a possibility.
Cariappa did feel that 'an indefinite President's rule all over the country would do us a lot of good'. He said in an interview that during this period, 'only such areas which may be unruly can be given in the hands of the army' and that 'only after the restoration of normalcy can elections be held'. This was in 1974. A year later, the Emergency, which the enfant terrible of the time, Sanjay Gandhi, wanted to be 'indefinite', was imposed. But that is another story.
What is relevant is that since Cariappa's time, all the army chiefs have stuck to the straight and narrow path of neutrality. Whether during defeat, as in 1962, or at a time of triumph, as in 1971, there hasn't been a whisper about the army nurturing political ambitions.
The latest brouhaha, therefore, would have been seen as a storm in a tea cup even if the prime minister had not called the report about supposedly suspicious troop movements in January 'alarmist'. Manmohan Singh's comment was followed by the army chief, Gen. V.K. Singh, describing the Indian Express report as 'stupid'.
To complicate matters, the Free Press Journal of Mumbai claimed that 'some time in late January the services of this newspaper were sought to be enlisted by elements hostile to the army chief for putting out a report that he could even consider the unthinkable if he did not get his way in his dispute over his actual year of birth. Indeed, sources close to the government suggested that he had given up the idea of the unthinkable only because he had failed to enlist the support of the top army brass'.
Several factors can be held responsible for the rumpus, of which competitive journalism is one. Of the others, the government's palpable weakness because of its embroilment in various scams provides an ideal setting for rumours about a coup, for it is precisely such conditions which the armies elsewhere use to overthrow a stumbling government.
Considering that responsible columnists believed that an Arab Spring could not be ruled out in India, and even saw its first signs in Anna Hazare's movement last year, showed how conducive Delhi's hot house atmosphere was for such fanciful speculation. If an Arab Spring could be envisaged, why not a coup?
There is little doubt that the 'breaking news' syndrome - 'there are lots of people who want to make stories these days', to quote Gen. Singh - plays a crucial part in sustaining the capital's endless quest for gossip. To return to Cariappa, when the field marshal sent an article to the Indian Express about his pet idea of an 'indefinite' President's Rule, the editor of the time, Frank Moraes, returned it saying that it would embarrass the newspaper and harm the former commander-in-chief's reputation.
Today, any newspaper or magazine or television will lap up any such article sent by a retired general. At the same time, it also has to be admitted that despite the cut-throat competition in the media world, and the eagerness with which 'experts' articulate their views in 'prime time' shows, instances of gross irresponsibility are few and far between in spite of what the irrepressible Press Council chief, Markandey Katju, may say.
But as the Niira Radia tapes showed, there are elements in the government and outside who are involved in all kinds of games. The 'leakage' of the tapes and the 'leakage' of Gen. Singh's letter to the prime minster on the army's obsolescence are evidences of insiders trying to undermine other insiders with the help of journalists during a turf war.
However, the good news is that the institutions have stood firm. There are no signs that anyone in the army wants to emulate Ayub Khan or Zia-ul Haq. The media has tried to look at the scene dispassionately even if some of them are momentarily swept off course, as during Anna Hazare's agitation last year. The judiciary, the Election Commission and the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) are acting as the guardians of a free society.
Even the bumbling government has had the sense to respond with dignity to attempts to create a mountain out of a molehill, as the prime minister's reference to the 'exalted office' of the army chief shows.
(07.04.2012 - Amulya Ganguli is a political analyst. He can be reached at email@example.com)