Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Battle of Army Chiefs – Former Vs the Next

Karan Kharb

Sadly, the institution of India’s Army Chief has once again been dragged into insalubrious controversy. BJP has reportedly asked the Election Commission to restrain the UPA Government from announcing the name of Gen Bikram Singh’s successor leaving it for the next Government to decide. Ironically, all the politicking in this context is not from any politician but from one of Army’s own former Chiefs, Gen VK Singh who is now a BJP contender for the Ghaziabad parliamentary seat.  Civilians look up to generals and military veterans as symbols of selfless service, chivalry and candour. Soldiers look up to their generals – serving or retired – as examples of high standards of character and, therefore, sources of great inspiration. Are we really living up to those aspirations? Is it really the oft-repeated Neta-Babu nexus or the military’s very own brass of yester years harming it more brutally and effectively than the former?      

Whenever politics has meddled with the top appointments of the Armed Forces, the manipulation was explained away in the name of 'merit over seniority' even as merit itself was the first casualty of such manipulation. The case of Lt Gen SK Sinha, a highly meritorious and senior most general who was superseded by his junior (Gen Vaidya) in the run to the top is a glaring example. Since then, however, the principle of 'seniority' has almost solidified as a convention in appointing the Chiefs in the Armed Forces. The only departure from this convention in the recent times was Vice Admiral RK Dhowan’s appointment as the Navy Chief passing over the senior most in line Vice Admiral Shekhar Sinha. The reasons in the wake of Admiral Joshi’s sudden and unexpected resignation owning moral responsibility for a chain of mishaps seemed plausible, as Sinha owed some tough explanations.     

It is not difficult to see that this unsavoury controversy has been engineered to scuttle the chances of Army’s present Vice Chief, Lt Gen Dalbir Singh Suhag, the obvious and rightful successor to Gen Bikram Singh being the senior most among the equally qualified top generals of the Army. It is openly known to all now that VK Singh’s behaviour towards Suhag has been vindictive and pre-determined since long. Equally obvious is the fact that if Suhag is eased out of the way, Lt Gen Ashok Singh, a close family relation (samdhi) of VK Singh becomes the first pick to succeed the present incumbent.  And we thought scheming and trickery were not soldierly traits!

There is no such rule or convention that binds the Government to announce the name of the next Chief of the Army Staff within two or three months. Gen VK Singh’s name was announced three months prior to Gen Kapoor’s retirement. Also, it is absurd to invoke ‘Model Code of Conduct’ to restrain the UPA Government in this matter because announcement of the next Army Chief’s name does not in any way influence voter behaviour during elections. Nor will it be fair to assume that the present UPA government should cease to function even in matters of Defence and routine governance.

Unfortunately, Gen VK Singh has a knack of courting unseemly controversies too frequently.  As Army Chief, he made more news for issues as tiny as his own date of birth than concentrating on higher and nobler missions of sharpening military’s effectiveness in matters of national defence and security. Soon after his retirement, a serving Army Major who visited the former Chief’s house in Delhi Cantt for official reasons, was humiliated and detained for hours allegedly for electronic eaves-dropping – a charge that could not be substantiated. For the first time ever in free India’s history, the high Office of the Chief of the Army Staff came to be maligned when he was at the helm for secretly monitoring the goings-on in the Office of the Defence Minister by employing his favourite ‘Technical Support Division’ (TSD) and its high tech electronic surveillance equipment. As if that was not enough, he pushed the Indian Army and the Government of India deep into embarrassment by openly claiming in a media interview that the “military intelligence was doling out cash to the politicians in J&K.”     

After hobnobbing and jockeying with politicians and activists of all hues ranging from Chautala to Anna Hazare, from kissans to students, he now seems finally settled as a full time politician.  Streets are abuzz that if he wins he might be India’s next Defence Minister. No doubt, in his rich military experience the next Government might find enough potential to uplift the sagging morale of the Defence Services due to continuing bureaucratic red tape and neglect. At the same time, his personal agenda and a vindictive nature threaten to tie him to petty considerations upsetting the military confidence and aggravating the already vitiated civil-military relationship at the highest level. Ideally, he would require capacity to absorb, magnanimity to accept, courage to bow and sincerity to place national interests above self, family and relations.                 

The system of promotion boards in the Armed Forces is such that it is not feasible – if we must trust the process – for a mediocre officer to reach the levels of Army Commander/Vice Chief. Therefore, it would be only fair to reinforce the healthy conventions already established by letting the senior most general in line (Lt Gen Dalbir Singh Suhag) succeed Gen Bikram Singh. It will also protect the Army against fears and suspicions of malice and vendetta that have been eating away military’s moral fibre from within and without. Only if there goes something seriously and glaringly wrong in the conduct and performance of the prospective senior in line should the Government have the prerogative to go for the next one in line as has been done for the Indian Navy. Sanity calls for the raging battle to cease and the hatchet to be buried.

The writer is a military veteran and author.

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