By Ajai Shukla
Editorial, Business Standard, 21st Dec 16
The announcement that Lieutenant General Bipin Rawat will be the next army chief, superseding two generals senior to him, should not, in itself, be worrying. Rather than blindly following the principle of seniority, every government has the right to pick a chief. Nor is this the first time supersession has happened. In 1983, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi chose General Arun Vaidya to be army chief, superseding one officer. Earlier, in 1975, she had superseded Lieutenant General Prem Bhagat by the backdoor, granting an extension to the serving chief, General GG Bewoor, until General Bhagat retired. Overall, there can be no quarrel over the government transparently picked its service chief, superseding other generals if necessary. This is the norm in armies worldwide.
What are of concern, however, are the reasons the government has advanced for choosing General Rawat over his seniors, General Praveen Bakshi and General PM Hariz. Spokespersons have put out that the new chief is more experienced in dealing with the challenges of the China border, and with terrorism, insurgency and proxy war in Jammu & Kashmir (J&K) and the Northeast. Generals Bakshi and Hariz, both from the mechanised forces, are specialists in tank warfare, especially the quick armoured strikes that would be crucial if push came to shove with Pakistan. By prioritising operational experience in peacetime low-intensity conflict, the government is unwittingly acknowledging that Pakistan has achieving its aim of using jihadi militants to tie down India’s military in an impasse in J&K, while its nuclear forces deterred India from upping the ante. In effect, New Delhi has accepted this, ruling out a riposte from its own conventional warfighting forces.
Meanwhile, the army’s officer cadre views the supersession of General Bakshi and General Hariz in the light of a ongoing internal struggle for the proportional distribution of promotion vacancies, which non-infantry officers allege have been disproportionately cornered by the infantry. The Supreme Court has acknowledged this, and ordered a more equitable redistribution of vacancies created by the Ajai Vikram Singh Committee. In this backdrop, it is difficult to rule out a deep concern among many in the army whether infantry officers – with long stints in low intensity conflict – will henceforth be preferred for the top job.
Inexplicably, the government continues to remain silent on appointing a tri-service commander --- either a four-star permanent chairman of the chiefs of staff committee (CoSC) recommended by the Naresh Chandra Task Force in 2012, or the five star chief of defence staff (CDS) that a group of ministers had recommended in 2001. Almost since the day he took over as defence minister, Manohar Parrikar has repeatedly promised this badly needed reform measure, while Prime Minister Narendra Modi has also made this promise. The delay in announcing the new army chief had led to widespread speculation that the government was finding a way to simultaneously announce the appointment of a tri-service commander. Yet, the government’s silence raises the question: why was there such a delay in announcing the next army chief? It would put much of the controversy around this announcement to rest and also benefit long-term defence planning if the government expeditiously announced a tri-service commander.