Last January, when the Indian government was at a standoff with its own Army Chief General Vijay Kumar Singh about his date of birth, unusual troop movements towards New Delhi “spooked” its rulers fearing a suspected coup d’état. General Singh is the first Indian Army Chief, who took his own government to court to prolong his tenure.

The controversy arose because Singh claimed that the Indian Ministry of Defence was retiring him a year earlier, following the date of birth (May 10, 1950) filled in by him in his application forms while joining the army. Singh maintained that his actual year of birth was 1951, which would give him a nine-month extension from May-end this year, and thus dragged the government to the Supreme Court. However, he lost the legal battle there and will, hence, retire in May 2012. The scandal caused great embarrassment to India and its army, but it now appears, it nearly toppled the cart of Indian democracy.

The reported coup attempt coincides with the date (January 16) that Singh took his case to the Supreme Court. A belated exposé made by the Indian Express reveals that fearful of being sacked for his effrontery, General Singh tried to pre-empt the possible extreme disciplinary action and mobilised an entire unit of Mechanised Infantry, with its Russian-made Armoured Fighting Vehicles, carried on 48 tank transporters from its base in Hisar (Haryana) as a part of the 33rd Armoured Division (which is a part of one corps, a strike formation based in Mathura) in the direction of the capital that was 150km away.

While the Indian politicians, babus and spooks tried to gather their wits to deal with this unexpected development, reports came in of yet another military movement “towards” Delhi. This unit was identified as a large element of the airborne 50 para brigade based at Agra. Like all coup d’états, this ominous troop movement towards the capital was in the dead of the night. The government posted lookouts and the Minister for Defence, who had no clue of the march of India’s crack army units, which are an essential component of its much touted “cold start” doctrine to overawe Pakistan through a “blitzkrieg” towards Delhi, issued orders to slow down the traffic by deploying traffic police to check every vehicle. Defence Secretary Shashi Kant Sharma was asked to cut short his visit to Malaysia. He returned post-haste and summoned Lieutenant General A.K. Chaudhary, Director General Military Operations, to seek explanations.

Meanwhile, the threat of a coup d’état became portentous, as the mechanised unit parked itself at an industrial park near Bahadurgarh abutting West Delhi’s Najafgarh. The para brigade lodged its personnel in the barracks of an artillery regiment - 79 medium - not far from Palam Airport.

The army’s explanation that it was all a simple fog-time exercise was viewed with scepticism at the highest level. Questions were raised, as to “why was the well set protocol that any military movement, at any time, in the national capital region has to be pre-notified to the Ministry of Defence, not followed? Did the units have to come so far towards Delhi? Why was the IAF not informed?” But my question is: why was the story kept under wraps for 11 weeks?

The fact is that during the 65 years of India’s independence, its army stayed absolutely out of politics, yet many Indians are not satisfied with the present government. Perhaps, none of the political forces in India will support a military coup, but last year’s broad anti-corruption campaign and the deplorable results of the Congress at the regional elections of 2011-2012 indicate that the position of the central government has considerably weakened, and at the best it can hold out until the next elections that are planned for 2014.

Additionally, this was revealed in the course of scandals associated with the name of General Singh, that India is facing a significant dilemma now: how to combine its claim for regional leadership with the necessity to live within its means, as the growth rate of the economy is slowing down, and the exchange rate of national currency is falling. India is the world’s largest importer of weapons and that reflects its geopolitical ambitions. Simultaneously, in his recent letter to PM Manmohan, General Singh described the deplorable state of the Indian army. “Where there’s smoke, there’s fire”; India should come clean about the suspected coup d’état.

   The writer is a political and defence analyst.