Stop messing around with the Indian Army
by Yajin Bhat on 17 Jul 2013 11 Comments

The Indian Army recently carried out an intensive changeover of its top Army Commanders, a move for which the Army Chief, General Bikram Singh, drew some trenchant criticism. Even when the postings were announced some weeks ago, a number of defence analysts questioned the need for the same. Logical reasons were given against carrying out an upheaval of this nature. The Indian defence establishment considered it fit to ignore the voices of caution and went ahead with the postings; but now many are questioning the motive and a finger is being pointed at the Army Chief for having a personal interest in executing the changes.


The entire changeover came at a time when only one Commander, Lt General KT Parnaik, heading the Jammu & Kashmir based Northern Army for more than two years, was to retire. Along with this, the Army also got a rotating vacancy of Army Commander status for the Integrated Defence Staff (IDS) in New Delhi, held by an Air Force officer who also retired. There were, as such, two Army Commander level vacancies available - the Northern Army and the IDS as on July 01.


One of the two senior officers in line was already commanding the Leh based 14 Corps and had been actively involved in diffusing the recent border face-off with the Chinese. Having firsthand experience of one of the most important Corps in Jammu & Kashmir, he was considered by many to be the most suited to take over the Northern Army. The second post at IDS could have gone to the other officer in line for promotion; a very neat and clean arrangement.


But the issue has been complicated by carrying out a series of changes. The already well settled Commander of the Western Army has been posted to the Northern Army; the Commander of the Central Army who was actively involved in the relief and rehabilitation operations in Uttarakhand has been posted to the IDS. The officer from the Leh Corps has been posted to the Central Army and the second officer in line has gone to the Western Army.


Instead of making two changes that were relevant and logical, four posts have been tinkered with; this when the country is in a sensitive position with China and also coming to grips with a natural disaster of phenomenal proportions. The senior officer posted out suddenly from Central Command had a critical role in flood relief.


Even though the transfers were carried out only after approval from the Defence Ministry, the convention is that the service in question (in this case the Army) puts up the proposal and it is accepted by the ministry. Hence, the service chiefs willy-nilly have the final say so far as appointments of senior officers are concerned. It would not be out of place to suggest that this entire complicated game plan is the brain child of General Bikram Singh.


Before proceeding further, it is important to see how Army Commanders are selected. The convention is that at the time when a vacancy for Army Commander comes up, the senior most Lieutenant General who has a residual service of minimum two years is elevated to the post. There are two logical reasons behind this convention. One, it is considered that all officers who get to the senior rank of Lieutenant General have an equal level of professional competence and seniority is the best method for promotion after that. Second, if Lieutenant Generals are elevated to the rank of Army Commander only on seniority, then some will hold the rank for very short periods of time which will negatively impact continuity.


In this instance, both conventions have been blatantly violated. If all Army Commanders have equal level of competence, then why is one considered more proficient to take on a particular command over the other? Does this not imply that even at this rank there are some who are considered better than the others? Secondly, by moving Commanders around, the factor of continuity is jeopardised. This gives rise to yet another argument - if continuity is not a factor and Army Commanders are to be moved around at will, why are Lieutenant Generals being by-passed from the rank simply because they do not have two years residual service required to maintain continuity? Some are only a few days short of the two-year tenure convention, yet do not get the elevation, is this fair?


While the above mentioned issues are of academic interest, more important and more critical is an aspect of the message going out. The transfers hint that the Army Chief is more comfortable with some of his commanders than the others. The flip side is that the Army Chief is insecure in dealing with some of his top generals. This indicates negativity at the top that can be exploited by the enemy and can send a very wrong signal down the internal chain of command. Cronyism of the worst kind seems to be flourishing.


And fast on the heels of these controversial changes, the Army Chief has thrown convention to the winds by overlooking the claim of Lieutenant General GS Bisht and appointing his junior Lieutenant General Nitin Kohli to the prestigious post of Signal Officer-in-Chief. Once again, the “suitability” factor has been brought into play with no regard to the concept of “equal level of competence” that forms the hallmark of appointments in the rank of Lieutenant General.


Finally, the role of the media – it is common knowledge that General Bikram Singh has consciously reduced media interface with the army. With the UPA government in doldrums, Antony known to be indecisive and unconcerned and media out of the loop, the Army Chief seems to be getting away with blue murder.  


General Deepak Kapoor, as Army Chief, had moved only one Army Commander, Lieutenant General HS Panag, from the Northern to the Central Command and there was a huge hue and cry. This time the entire set up has gone upside down and not a word is whispered in any quarter. Where are the TV channels, the defence correspondents, the analysts etc? It is time for the matter to be looked into at the highest level and things set right before it is too late.


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