Last week, soon after Lt General Bipin Rawat was announced the next Chief of Army Staff (COAS) superceding two officers senior to him, the armed forces family, consisting of the serving officers and the veterans, gave out a mixed reaction. In this era and time of social media, such reactions are easy to express but difficult to be comprehended.
One thing which your reporter understood going through inputs on various platforms was that the men in the uniform react differently to a situation depending on their years of service in the force. While for some appointment of Gen Rawat was celebration of their regimental, arm brotherhood, for others it was a case of “unnecessary” political interference.
The Army has largely maintained seniority as the main quotient among the serving army commanders and the vice-chief for elevating one among them as the COAS. In recent history, this has been seldom disrupted but for the instance of Lt General SK Sinha being overlooked and Gen AS Vaidya being elevated. Interestingly, Gen Vaidya was an Armoured Corp (9 Deccan) officer, who had superseded an infantry officer Gen Sinha (Gorkha Rifles).
Now we have a situation reversal, where an infantry officer Gen Bipin Rawat (also a Gorkha officer) is superseding two non-infantry generals, Lt Gen Praveen Bakshi, who is from the Armoured Corp and Lt Gen PM Hariz who is from the Mechanised Infantry. One of theories floating in the uniform circles about the supersession is “attempt to Mandalise” the forces by the infantry officers.
Since those rising to high office of the army commander come from what’s called “General Cadre”, their regimental background officially cannot be made into a cause for elevation to or rejection for the Chief’s office. The reason for the same had to be different. The government has not helped the cause by not giving any reasons for the not so ordinary a decision.
The Narendra Modi government, in fact, had set a fine precedence when it decided to elevate Gen Dalbir Singh Suhag as the Chief of Army Staff in 2014 despite the known antipathy former Chief Gen VK Singh held for him. Gen Singh was in 2014 a prominent mascot of BJP’s political campaign and was expected to influence the decision about Gen Dalbir Singh’s elevation.
However, turn of events showed that Gen VK Singh did not cut much ice with the leadership, which even showed Gen Suhag’s seniority in the Supreme Court among other credentials for his elevation. Therefore, it becomes all the more important to know what made the government supersede two equally competent Army Commanders, if not more, to elevate Gen Rawat.
This “attempt at Mandalisation by infantry officers” theory may also sound fanciful as such tough and hard-boiled political decision definitely must not have been made for reasons of inter-arm rivalry. Moreover, following the writings by some veterans in the past few days, its largely clear that inter-arm rivalry is not so bitter in the forces to invite this kind of a - for want of a better word - manoeuvring.
One of the bitterest denouncement of Gen Rawat’s elevation has come from a fellow infantry officer – Lt Gen Iqbal Singh ‘Ike’ Singha. In an article on a social media forum, Gen Singha has written, “The NDA government has followed (Pakistan PM) Nawaz Sharif and appointed a COAS out of turn following the norms of a banana republic. I have very closely served with all the three senior most officers and we have grown together. All three are thorough professionals and Praveen Bakshi and PM Hariz lacked nothing.”
Gen Singha has a very interesting take on why Lt Gen Sinha was overlooked by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in 1983. He writes, “In the past, only once the senior most army commander, Lt Gen Sinha (then VCOAS) had been passed over as Gen AS Vaidya had been appointed COAS by the Congress government led by Indira Gandhi. History punished the nation for this folly. Gen Vaidya lacked the moral guts to tell Mrs Gandhi that Army, an apolitical organisation, should not be dragged into storming a religious place like the Golden Temple.
Gen Sinha, a strong man would have perhaps resented and that is why he was overlooked. As a result Operation Blue Star was launched wherein some troops of Indian Army desecrated the holy shrine. Expressing anguish, some members of the minority community shot both Indira Gandhi and her chosen COAS. Lt Gen Sinha on the other side was rehabilitated by the then opposition as Ambassador to Nepal (When VP Singh became Prime Minister). Later he became a Governor and has been a historian of sorts. His death recently marked an end of an era.”
Lt Gen Singha himself is a very engaging personality and known for straight talk. Your reporter had the chance to meet him in Poonch sector way back in 1999, where he was a commanding an infantry unit. Later, as a Major General serving in Gujarat he had invited the wrath of media and then Government at the Centre for calling Narendra Modi a competent Chief Minister. He later got elevated to command a UN Peacekeeping Force in Golan Heights, where he once again courted controversy, though briefly and came out clean winning commendation of UN Secretary-General.
Defence Ministry sources, on the other hand, have tried to justify Gen Rawat’s elevation saying that in the current scenario “counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency are key issues” and, therefore, “background and operational experience” of candidates on the panel had to be taken into account from this perspective. Rawat is credited for successful surgical strikes both inside Myanmar and Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir.
However, in the next fortnight, as Gen Rawat waits to get elevated, the Government will have to walk an extra mile to justify this decision. It’s necessary to restore that faith in the armed forces that the decision is not a case of “unnecessary political interference” as many veterans and serving officers believe.
(Sidharth Mishra is President, Centre for Reforms, Development & Justice and Consulting Editor,
Millennium Post. The views expressed are strictly personal.)