Published On: Mon, Apr 9th, 2012


The recent scare story about unauthorized movement of an army unit to Delhi was a non-event that was blown up to make it look like a coup against the government. It is part of the continuing effort to discredit the army chief for his tough stand against corruption. Sonia Gandhi confidante Brajesh Mishra seems to be a key figure in this campaign against the Army and its chief . Navaratna Rajaram writes more…

A strange thing happened on the way to a supposed coup attempt that apparently ‘spooked’ Raisina Hill (where the PM lives) in January. It just melted until it reappeared suitably sensationalized ten weeks later, not in the streets of Delhi but the front page of The Indian Express. Needless to say the financially struggling Express sold many more copies than it normally does on that day. This was followed by its editor-in-chief Shekhar Gupta being a prime exhibit on the news channels helping his paper boost its sagging sales, at least temporarily.

The story was absurd to begin with. Delhi has one of the largest military cantonments in the world in which more than 30,000 troops are stationed, while the units moving into Delhi numbered a total of some 400 soldiers— hardly a major threat. Such movements, which are routine exercises, are needed to test the preparedness and speed of response of security forces. For example, can security forces respond rapidly enough in the event of a terrorist attack in the capital? When there was a terrorist attack on the Indian Parliament a few years ago, the security forces were ready to respond thanks to which lives of the MPs and the Vice President were saved though several security guards including a brave woman laid down their lives. This was possible only because of mobility drills like the one that spooked the Indian Express.

Even more absurd, the website had carried a detailed and factual account of this army drill on 13 March 2012 in which it was reported said Army had discovered some deficiencies in its logistical preparations and deployment. The drill was intended to correct them. The Express reporters including its editor-in-chief Shekhar Gupta had trumpeted their story using the whole front page without doing their homework. Gupta didn’t actually spell out the word ‘coup’ but carried enough insinuations as to leave the reader in no doubt about it.

Even if it was meant as a warning it was nearly three months too late; the exercise was over in January while the sensational story appeared only in April. Had there really been a coup in January, the reporters who wrote the story, including the ‘spooked’ Shekhar Gupta would have been shot by the new rulers! In short it was a hatchet job pure and simple on the army and its chief. The Express story will go down in journalism textbooks as a classic case of ‘plant journalism’.


For a long time The Indian Express used to be controlled by the late Ramnath Goenka whose name has become a byname for fierce independence. Several important journalistic awards like the Excellence in Journalism Awards are named after him. It has had a distinguished roster of journalists and writers like Arun Shourie, S. Gurumurthy and others writing for it. The present chief editor Shekhar Gupta is neither in their independent mould nor does he have the character to rise above partisanship and petty politics. In short, he is easily manipulated by the powers that be. This is what R. Kashyap who has observed the Indian media for a long time noted.

“Printing almost 11 weeks after the alleged episode, Gupta should have asked himself – and his sources – that if the danger of a coup indeed existed at the time, why had Government not asked the General to resign after it was aborted? Alternately, why had it not either relieved him from the charge by asking the next man to take over, or why had it not just sacked him?”

Why indeed? Mr. Kashyap provided the following explanation: “Gupta and his colleagues were probably too beholden to their source(s) to say no– and delivered a command performance. Its success depended upon the readers of his newspaper falling for the fable. But the Indian people have always had the uncanny knack of skirting propaganda and arriving at the truth by their own means. So it was the Great Editor who made a fool of himself, for he could not fool the people.”

In other words Gupta and his paper were acting as conduits for planting propaganda as ‘news’ at the bidding of some political masters. In other words, the ‘command’ to plant the story came from someone so high that they dared not refuse. Willingly or unwittingly, Shekhar Gupta and his colleagues at the Express have brought to light two evils that plague journalism today– sensationalism and ‘planted news’. In the words of Mr. Kashyap:

“Sensationalism is currently the bedrock of Indian journalism. In keeping with the decline in every aspect of our private and public life, our media has also deteriorated. But even by the known standards of our degradation, the full page story on the front page of the Indian Express (4 April 2012), bearing the byline of the editor in chief himself, strikes a new low. Never in living memory has a single story grabbed the entire front page of a newspaper; a major event like the Bangladesh war might have dominated page one, but there would be other supporting stories on the same issue.”

Puppet and the puppeteer

To their credit both the Prime Minister and the Defence Minister denounced it calling the fabricated story the work of anti-national interests and the story soon began to unravel as Shekhar Gupta ran for cover. He will have to live the rest of his life carrying the label of an agent of anti-national interests trying to create a divide between the armed forces and the government. But Gupta was just a puppet, the million (or billion) dollar question is— who was the puppeteer?

It will probably be some weeks, possibly months before the whole story unravels, but there are some straws in the wind. Soon after the coup to plant a coup in the news unraveled, an eighty-four year old fossil called Brajesh Mishra came out of the woodwork and denounced the army chief General V.K. Singh as the “worst army chief in India’s history.” Why, when Gen Singh has never lost a battle, has a distinguished record in fighting insurgencies and terrorists? To go with it, he has drawn public attention to corruption in military procurements. And that is his problem— for he stands in the way of people interested in what in a previous column I called the ‘Bofors Paradigm’. It is a paradigm that looks at the military as a source of procurement rather than as a force to defend the nation. (It was introduced by a family that escaped to Italy during the Bangladesh War.)

And who is this Brajesh Mishra who called V.K. Singh the “worst army chief in history” and demanded that he be sent on forced leave? Is he a military expert? Hardly, he was the National Security Advisor in the NDA Government where he had a most undistinguished record. Mr. Kashyap makes the following interesting observation: “If the intent was to ensure the immediate sack of Gen Singh – to augment a previous demand by the NDA’s national security adviser Brajesh Mishra who inexplicably received a Padma Vibhushan from the UPA, allegedly for reasons of proximity to its reigning monarch – Gupta should have paused before leaping without looking.”

So here is the clue— Brajesh Mishra is close to the dynasty though he served in the NDA. It may be noted that his daughter Jyotsna is married to an Italian and lives in Italy. But more significantly, as Prime Minister Vajpayee’s secretary during the NDA regime, Mishra rescued Rahul Gandhi when he was detained in the Boston Logan Airport by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Authority (or the FBI) for carrying a huge amount of unaccounted cash—more than $200,000—in his briefcase. (U.S. law limits the cash that can be carried to $10,000.) This was reported in The Hindu on September 30, 2001.

So that was what earned a Padma Vibhusan for Brajesh Mishra. Padma Vibhushan is a very high civilian award. As a basis for comparison here are two awardees— Field Marshal Manekshaw and nuclear physicist Dr. Raja Ramanna. They are now joined by one Brajesh Mishra. (It is fortunate they are not here to witness it.) It is not just in journalism that standards have deteriorated. Look at who was the President that gave the award to Brajesh Mishra.

A real coup that failed

While Shekhar Gupta and some politicians have raised a hue and cry over this non-existent coup of their own imagination, it is instructive to recall that the last time there was an attempt to drag the army into politics was during the 1975 – 77 Emergency. Prime Minister Indira Gandhi asked for the Army’s support in the venture, but the then Army Chief of Staff General Tapishwar Narain Raina bluntly told the Prime Minister that the army would not be used to “further her ends” but obey only those orders of a “legally construed government.”  This was considered a crucial moment that kept the Indian Army out of politics at a critical juncture. The real dictator during the Emergency was Sanjay Gandhi who was head of the Youth Congress but held no elective office. Just think of what horrors might have been inflicted on the country had Sanjay Gandhi gotten hold of the army for his murderous activities.

This is not the end of the story, for Sanjay tried once more. Two years later, when the Congress had lost the election, General Raina accompanied by his deputy General S.K. Sinha came to see Indira Gandhi to commiserate with her over her election defeat. Sanjay coolly suggested that the Emergency could be re-imposed with the Army’s cooperation. As he saw it there were enough battalions in the Indian Army to occupy the country using one battalion per district, while the police could be used to control the people. His mother sat with a blank face as Sanjay floated this outlandish suggestion.

As General Sinha later observed, Sanjay’s calculation was “mathematically correct, militarily unsound and politically immature.” General Raina, a man of imposing presence, his military bearing enhanced by a black eye patch that he often wore as the result of a war injury, ignored Sanjay and addressed Indira Gandhi directly. He told her that history would honor her as one who respected the people’s verdict by voluntarily giving up her office. This means, when called upon to intervene the Army opposed the coup. But history books don’t mention it.

So let us get this thing straight: as one who comes from an army family and enjoys close relations with the armed forces both of India and the U.S., I can say that a military coup in India is no more likely than a military coup in the United States. The idea of the military’s non-involvement in politics is too firmly entrenched in India. If Indians lose their freedom again it will be because of blundering and greedy politicians (and bureaucrats) who have no notion of what it takes to defend the nation but are drawn by the Bofors Paradigm.

  • N.S. Rajaram

    It is curious that even after the exposure of the story as a plant by “a senior cabinet minister” there is no explanation by The Indian Express or Shekhar Gupta. Apparently they see it as business as usual.

    On a related topic, though having more to do with the first part of the article, I have received numerous appreciative letters about the quote from Kautilya. For the record, it is a compilation based on extracts from the ‘Canakya Neeti’ attributed to Kautilya and Bhartihari’s ‘Neeti Shataka’.

    This of course does not in any way affect its wisdom or its relevance.

  • Sohan

    Let the commanding officer who gave the “marching order” to the army to move towards Delhi, please, stand up and assert the movement was planned days and months before the occurrence and there does exists a paper trail: requisite entries in the planning journal, to vouch for his assertion.
    “Routine exercise” explanation is not sufficient.

    • N.S. Rajaram

      Governent rules (protocol) require that the army inform clear it with the government when it is moving a corps, not smaller units. A corps is two divisions or more meaning at least 40,000 troops which is a major logistical undertaking.

      These are government rules which the army MUST follow and does. It is not up to every Tom, Dick and Harry with access to the Internet to make the rules; and the army cannot– and doesn’t have to follow all of them. It must follow government rules. Otherwise, the commanding officer in question faces court martial. He cannot say in his defense that someone on the Internet told him something else!

      I hope this will put an end to this fruitless exchange of what the army should or should not have done. It strictly followed what the rules demanded.

      The real question is: didn’t Shekhar Gupta know this elementary fact? As a senior journalist he should have contacted the government and got his facts straight. Gupta is not a stupid man. So the only explanation is that someone powerful gave him the story and pressured him to carry it.

  • N.S. Rajaram

    It is sufficient for the government and the public. The Allahabad High Court has just ruled that these matters should not be in the public domain. The visceral anti-military attitude is a hangover from the Nehru-Menon era who were both physical and moral cowards.

    The problem is unlike in the West, the Indian ruling class (politicians and bureaucrats) and the intelligentsia (including the media) is an effete bunch with no background in national defense. To borrow a colorful statement from President Truman in describing Chinag Kai Shek’s army, “They couldn’t defend themselves in a bar room brawl.” This is the state of the Indian elite.

    • Sohan

      Indian civilian government is the ultimate authority over the actions of the Indian military. To say the military movement under discussion needs no explanation other than it was a routine exercise is unfortunate, a sign of high-handedness, and insubordination!

      Good luck to those who support that stance of the military response.

      • Mohan Mahapatra

        But that is the only explanation. There are standard procedures that govern troop movements and they were followed. Does Mr Sohan want civilians directing the movements of battalions, platoons and eventually individual soldiers to be directed by civilian bureaucrats?

        Mr Rajaram made it abundantly clear that when it was asked by ‘civilians’ Indira Gandhi and Sanjay to carry out a coup, the army refused because it was an illegitimate order.

        The problem with the likes of Mr. Sohan is that army can do no right. (This was Krishna Menon’s stand also.) If he feels that the army violated orders, he can go to court.

        I would advise Mr. Rajaram to ignore such dogmatic people. They can never see reason.

        • Madhugupta01

          There had been no misunderstanding on the army movement had the chief asserted that the movement was planned and it took place as scheduled. A convey of even 400 is sufficient to result in traffic jam. End of the discussion

          • Mohan Mahapatra

            Who says a convoy of 400? You don’t need a convoy of 400 to move 400 troops, only about 20 vehicles. There was no traffic jam. The Express and its editor learnt about the movement 2 months later though the government knew about it long before as is clear from the Rediff reort cited in the article.

            As a former defense analyst, I am appalled at the depth of ignorance about national defense on the part of educated Indians. No wonder Indians have been on the losing side battles for nearly 1000 years!

            The only nation with a worse military record is Italy, and now Italians are ruling India, without any military!

          • Sohan

            20 troops to a truck and 20 trucks make it 400. if the government, indeed, knew why not say so! The government should have known. Why not say so!

          • N.S. Rajaram

            I am intrigued by the amount of controversy generated by my article.

            The government is required only to report changes in procedures, rules and personnel, not activities under existing procedures. These changes are posted in the Gazzette.

            I agree that the govenment might have been more transparent to announce the troop movement and stating that it was routine and within exising procedures.

            But this (UPA) is not a transparent government. It prefers secrecy and under-the-table deals. It began with defreezing Quattrocchi’s account in London, and later withdrawing the CBI case and the Interpol notice.

            More recently, it was secretive about Sonia Gandhi’s trip to the U.S. though as chairperson of NAC she enjoys cabinet status. And recently, M.D. Nalpat has reported that Gandhi family intimates and Sonia Gandhi herself have been making frequent trips to Qatar where Sonia’s two sisters are living.

            The implication is that these trips are being used for transfer of money to tax havens and secret accounts.

            Why don’t we have front page stories on these? Please see THE SUNDAY GUARDIAN fo details.

          • Sohan

            In the electronic age of today nutty it would be for anyone, high or low, to come to USA to transfer funds, legal or illegal, to foreign banks. Wire transferring is safe, cost effective, exceptionally convenient, and above all secretive.

          • N.S. Rajaram

            I am sure that people with the kind of money that the Gandhi family does, and I don’t (perhaps you do) knows what is best for itself. And I am sure that M.D. Nalpat knows what he is talking about.

          • Sohan

            No one till date has substantiated the Gandhi family treasure. Rumors and speculations are plenty but these belong to hate filled minds and yellow journalism.

            BTW, even Everest high heap of gold is not worth an ounce of dust if the owner cannot make use of the treasure. Billions are found locked in a temple in South India, big deal. Money in foreign banks are good to keep the bank lockers warm and banks rich.

          • Mohan Mahapatra

            So the truth comes out. Sohan is a defender of the Gandhi family and their loot, which incidentally is very well documented in Swiss, Swedish and Russian documents. So Sonia & family can do no wrong!

          • Sohan

            Care to cite these authoritative documents. Reliable sources won’t suffice!

  • Sohan

    Wonder, when former defense analyst Mohan Mahapatra is going to cite the “authoritative” documents that detail the wealth of Gandhi family. No good to go to the press without data to support. Defense analysts, present or former, should know at least that much!

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