Appointment of the Next Indian Army Chief: A Contested Political Issue

07 May, 2014    ·   4427

Cmde (Retd) C Uday Bhaskar suggests that any decision taken ought to be based on the most objective professional considerations

The UPA government led by PM Manmohan Singh is expected to demit office on 16 May 2014 when the eagerly awaited elections results will be announced by the Election Commission (EC). Both the BJP and the Congress have been making strong claims that they will emerge as winners, though the betting is on the former – and the possibility of a non-Congress Modi led government in Delhi is the higher probability. But at the same time, it merits recall that Indian elections have not always followed opinion polls and ‘trends’ and the BJP remembers this all too well from its 2004 and 2009 experience. Thus the uncertainty about which party will get the definitive numbers (273 seats) and the nature of the new government, including who will be the Prime Minister and the composition of the coalition will  continue  – till all the results are announced.

Against this backdrop, the appointment of a new Army Chief to succeed General Bikram Singh, who retires on 31 July 2014, has come into sharp and undesirable focus. Under normal circumstances, the government of the day takes such decisions three months in advance and there has been no protest given the sensitivity of the office of a service Chief – which has a direct bearing on national security. It may be recalled that when the BJP-led NDA government lost the 2004 elections, there was no controversy about the appointment of the Naval Chief at the time. The incumbent was to retire in end July 2004 and the Vajpayee government announced the appointment of then Vice Admiral Arun Prakash as the next naval Chief. The Congress party which was to form the next government, as the lead entity in the UPA, did not see this as untoward or raise the ‘lame-duck’ government charge.

Regrettably in the current political environment where even civility in speech has become a casualty, the appointment of the next Army Chief has become a contested political issue. The BJP, it is understood, has questioned the propriety of the UPA government taking this decision and has approached the EC to restrain the government. The logic being advanced is that there will be a clear two months plus even after mid-May for the incumbent - General Bikram Singh - to retire and that this decision should be the prerogative of the next government, which the BJP presumes it will lead.

Earlier in end March, the EC had opined that specific to the defence forces, matters pertaining appointments, promotions, tenders and procurement do not come within the purview of the Model Code of Conduct in relation to the elections and hence the government was within its rights to proceed as deemed appropriate to ensure that the national security apparatus was in no way compromised or adversely impacted.

Given the attention the Army Chief’s appointment has received, Defence Minister Antony stated on 2 May that the government had sought the EC’s view on this issue as it wanted to “strictly follow all the procedures.” The EC in turn has indicated that they will review the matter – both the reference made by the UPA government and the BJP protest in the course of this week.

Coincidentally, mid-May is also the period when India would differently recall the Kargil war of 1999 and the manner in which national security and sovereignty were challenged. Despite the animus between the Congress and the BJP over the latter’s decision to conduct the nuclear tests of May 1998 - all political parties closed ranks over Kargil and India was able to wrest back the craggy mountain peaks stealthily occupied by the Pakistan Army - albeit at a heavy human cost.

Fifteen years later, one would submit for the consideration of the EC and the BJP leaders that national security remains as sacred and sensitive and that any decision taken ought to be based on the most objective professional considerations. As a country with nuclear weapons, it is imperative that the higher echelons of national security – both civilian and military – are appropriately staffed and here the hierarchy of the armed forces have a special status.

Over the last three years, civil-military relations in India have been muddied by the unsavory controversy generated over the date of birth issue associated with former Army Chief General VK Singh. At the time the most deplorable aspersions were cast about the integrity and rectitude of promotions to higher ranks in the Army and a certain sectarian bias was alleged. Regrettably the UPA government did not intervene in a firm and empathetic manner and the Supreme Court was invoked.

Bitter personal rivalries came to the fore and all of this had a corrosive effect on the cohesion of the Indian Army and by extension – the texture of both civil-military relations and institutional credibility.  The last time that India went through such a bleak phase was in the run up to the 1962 war with China and the price paid was both heavy and ignominious.

In the current situation, the BJP would be well-advised to keep this issue quarantined - and away from media glare - and in the event there are serious and substantive differences of opinion, the same could be addressed through quiet, constructive consultation with the government. The perception in the public domain is that the entry of General VK Singh into the political arena as a high-visibility BJP member has queered the pitch. The rank and file of the Army is aware of the bitter charges and allegations that clouded the elevation of General Bikram Singh and are watching the current proceedings with some dismay.

Will the appointment of the next Army Chief proceed as per the professional norms and protocols that have been evolved in India or will certain subjective and partisan considerations come into play?  The Election Commission has been unwittingly drawn in to this sensitive area which may be beyond its mandate – but its decision will have a long-term bearing on the equipoise that should characterise the political-military interface. Consequently all eyes, this week, will be on Chief Election Commissioner Sampath.

The original version of this article appeared in Dainik Jagaran in Hindi on 5 May 2014.