The controversy caused by The Indian Express' report on the movement of two key army units towards the capital city of Delhi on the intervening night of January 16-17 (without notification to the central government and the panic reaction triggered as a result) has nearly died down. It had to, for not only did the mass media side, almost en bloc, with those who dismissed the report as 'baseless', but also raised questions regarding the logic of the insinuation that such movement might have been aimed at achieving a coup d'etat, instead of looking for answers for the questions raised in the report. The reasons, perhaps, are not far to seek in a country where any unfavourable comparisons with a certain neighbouring state, where civilian governments have been toppled by the army more than once, can often lead to mass hysteria.
Let us examine, first, one of the questions raised by the report, i.e., why did the paratrooper unit choose to drive through the traffic jams of Delhi (compounded by severe fog) to reach Hindon, instead of crossing the Yamuna river at Agra itself and driving through Uttar Pradesh, parallel to the Grand Trunk Road, in addition to the mechanised infantry unit driving all the way to the outskirts of the national capital to check its preparedness?
The only conclusion that a possible answer lends itself to, besides the one that the army's top brass and most of the mass media would perhaps not want us to draw, points towards gross incompetence on the part of the commanders. As the then chief of the U. S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), Leon Panetta, had said about the Pakistani authorities after Osama Bin Laden was found in Pakistan by the CIA and killed by American troops, they were either "complicit or incompetent". Despite that, however, no one seems to be asking how such men have managed to reach such high positions in Indian army's command structure, if we assume that they have been incompetent and not complicit, and why they have been allowed to remain there, especially in view of the likely consequences of that in a war-like situation.
Then, let us look at a query raised by the 'other side', i.e., why would a general who wished to stage a coup (if he did indeed have such intentions) bother to bring in troops from outside when sufficient numbers of them already were present in the Delhi cantonment?
Although we do not know whether a coup was meant to be staged and perhaps never will, there are certain aspects that may be attributed only to co-incidence but make the whole episode very curious. For instance, if I were a general intent on taking over Raisina Hill, a unit each of paratroopers and mechanised infantry would be my first choice to accomplish the task. That would be because the only resistance expected, if at all, would be from police or paramilitary personnel equipped with small firearms and the light armour of the armoured personnel carriers, along with the machine guns mounted atop these, of the mechanised infantry unit would be sufficient to overcome that and carry out an 'area domination exercise' within a fairly short period of time (before even Delhi cantonment could get a whiff of the plot) with few or no casualties among the soldiers. Subsequently, the paratroopers, trained to be 'dropped' into an unfamiliar area (even behind enemy lines) and secure it quickly, could move into the buildings and compounds and 'secure' those as well as their occupants.
Apparently, the Delhi cantonment has an infantry brigade and an artillery brigade stationed in it, of which the soldiers on foot would be far slower and exposed to small-arms fire, as against the mechanised infantry, and the artillery, with its large and heavy guns, would not really be required, in my opinion.
As for the number of troops needed, the 500-700 which would form the combined strength of the two units should be sufficient to take over the 25 square-kilometres or so that form the seat of Indian government.
Secrecy would obviously be paramount for such an operation, in order to retain the advantage of surprise, and I, for one, would not mind bringing in troops from outside, provided I could trust the commanders completely. It might be useful to mention here that the two senior officers controlling the movement of troops on the night between January 16 and 17 have been reported to be "staunch allies of the chief", although their actions could very well have arisen, as mentioned before, from incompetence.
Last, but not the least, is the question of support from the the army's six 'regional commanders'. Could a coup have been successful without unstinting support from these officers?
If I were the leader of such a coup attempt, I would inform the regional commanders only after taking over Raisina Hill in one swift stroke and taking the prime minister and his council of ministers, as well as the president, into 'protective custody'. Not being aware of whether any of the other five were on board, I would expect each of them to be too dazed to react or, at least, react fast enough. The cynicism prevalent among the public regarding the political class in general could only add to their reluctance to stick their respective necks out and whole-heartedly oppose a coup attempt.
Additionally, the factional feuds among the senior commanders, which have been played out rather publicly in the recent past, would form another impediment in the way of their coming together against a military take-over of the country.
Although, obviously, nothing can be stated with absolute certainty, with many of the generals hankering for longer tenures, by hook or by crook, one is inclined to think that it might have been possible to 'persuade' some to pledge their support in return for a few more years in office and/or promotions. For instance, the Western army commander then, who had secured a medical disability status that would have fetched him higher pension, was quick to reverse it when he discovered that he could be in the running for the top job in the army if the army chief was to resign well before the date of his retirement. He is supposed to have recovered from arthritis almost overnight. Unless he discovered a miracle cure, he can only be described as a man of doubtful integrity and, therefore, as far as I can see, likely to be a good candidate for 'persuasion'. Incidentally, the Delhi cantonment also forms part of the Western command and he would have been the regional commander most closely placed and, therefore, in the best position to either act quickly against a coup attempt or to contribute to its success.
Having considered all of the above, I am of the opinion that the civilian administration's reaction that resulted in slowing down the troop movement and, ultimately, in bringing it to a halt at Delhi's outskirts, was neither unwarranted nor ill-advised, regardless of whether or not the movement was meant to be part of an actual coup attempt.
Note: This post, as all others on this weblog, is based on publicly available information and the author's personal views/opinions.