Monday, January 9, 2012

Army to lose a top notch General - The politics behind army chief’s age row

by Seema Mustafa

The Indian Army is rallying behind its chief General VK Singh who is caught in an ‘age’ row with the defence ministry. Senior officers do not hesitate to point out that the political dispensation should not have turned the chief’s retirement age into such a major issue, and the dignity of the army chief and the institution should have ‘been respected.’

Fueling the support is the unpopularity of Lieutenant General Bikram Singh, who is likely to succeed as the next army chief if General VK Singh is retired. Lt General Bikram Singh has been lobbying hard for the post, and has the support of the former army chief and now Governor General JJ Singh. Sources said Lt General Singh, currently the general officer commanding-in-chief, Eastern Command, also has support from within the Prime Minister’s Office.

The anger within the army about what a senior officer described as this ‘conspiracy’ against the current chief is spilling over, with most officers unable to go on record. However, retired officers have started writing articles on the issue although as one brigadier pointed out, ‘several media houses are not interested in our views as it is not in keeping with the defence ministry’s position.’ Defence sources pointed out that reports about the army chief’s age controversy were emanating from the defence ministry, and the army was being wrongly blamed.

The one criticism against General VK Singh has been that he should have spent more time in chasing the implementation of his own report on the Transformation of the Indian Army, and less on what some see as a ‘personal matter.’ However, officers who are supporting him make it clear that the age issue was not a personal matter as it affected the dignity and stature of the army chief’s office as well as the institution of the Indian Army.

Significantly, there are no two views within the army about the fact that the birth year controversy would not have come in the way of General Singh taking over as chief, regardless of whether the government accepted — 1950 or 1951. And as a senior officer pointed out, ‘The defence ministry could have taken the required steps to clear this when General Singh was made corps commander but this was deliberately not done.’

Significantly, if General Singh succeeds in delaying his retirement, the present Northern Command Chief Lt General KT Parnaik will be the most likely candidate for the army chief’s post. He is very popular within the army, seen by his colleagues as well as seniors as a ‘thinking general.’ However, if Lt General Bikram Singh makes it to the top post as seems to be the intention of the Manmohan Singh government, Lt General Parnaik will retire and the army will have lost the benefit of a ‘top notch’ general.

The writer is a senior New Delhi-based journalist

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