In his letter to the Supreme Court opposing the Army Chief, General V.K. Singh’s case for relevant official records to show his correct date of birth, Attorney General Goolam Vahnavati referred to a mysterious “succession plan” that he said the authorities were determined to protect. The so-called “succession plan” has validity only if the Government of India first acknowledges that it has outsourced the selection of Chief of Army Staff to a couple of former army chiefs. If such is the case, then it is a most alarming development and it is surprising it has drawn so little attention.
Whatever the merits of this succession plan, it is predicated on a basic fact of military life, namely that, all other things being equal, the reigning Service chief decides the fate of three star-rank officers by assigning or, for whatever reasons of his own, denying them prize posts. The Defence Minister and his Ministry, in this situation, act as mere rubber stamps. To cite an example from some two decades back, the finest armoured commander the Indian Army has produced, the no-nonsense Lieutenant General Hanut Singh, never made Army Commander, in the main, because his seniors and colleagues who had had enough of his outspokenness, branded him “chaplain General” for his religious rituals carried out privately on his time, and sidetracked his career. Hanut ended up as Commandant, Armoured Corps Centre and School, Ahmednagar. The Defence Minister at the time, K.C. Pant, recalls that the army hierarchy was dead set against Hanut being given theatre command, which opposition, he says, he could not ignore.
Without getting into too much detail, the saga in the present case enters the critical stage with the freshly minted Lieutenant General Vijay Kumar Singh being handed command of the prestigious II Corps in 2006, which required his prior acquiescence in, as far as he was concerned, the wrong birth-date. It pushed him into first of the three significant compromises he willingly made when he could have, but did not, condition his successive promotions and acceptance of commands (ad seriatim, as General Officer Commanding — II Corps, General Officer-Commanding-in-Chief, Eastern Command, and finally COAS) on the Military Secretary’s Office modifying its records to show 1951 as his year of birth, which he had steadfastly maintained from the time of his commissioning. He can be faulted for “over-weaning ambition” for instead accepting the ambiguous promises made by the serving Chiefs of Staff, Generals J. J. Singh in 2006 and Deepak Kapoor in 2008 when last V.K. Singh took command of the Eastern Army, that they would take care of business. Neither of them did, and the age issue festered until now when it is a full-blown crisis that the Supreme Court will rule on today. It, of course, did not help that V.K. Singh’s personal relations with Kapoor, never very warm, chilled when the former succeeded in collaring the latter’s Adjutant General and confidante, Lt. Gen. Avdesh Prakash, in the Sukna land scam.
The beneficiary of General V.K. Singh’s uncorrected date of birth, it turns out, is his successor at Eastern Command, Lieutenant General Bikram Singh, who like him at the time he became COAS, is the senior most serving officer in the army and putative army chief should he retire as per the incorrect year of birth, by May-end 2012. The murky and interesting part of the story is this: Assuming Bikram Singh was the man J.J. Singh hoped, down the line, to install as army chief then the latter had the motivation to disregard V.K. Singh’s protestations and keep the birth year anomaly intact. No love lost between them, Kapoor had no reason to help V.K. Singh resolve this problem either. In both instances, the serving COASs were remiss in not acting in conformity with the army ethos requiring the senior officer to play scrupulously fair with and safeguard the interests of a junior officer, especially with so much at stake for latter. This then was the “succession plan”. This plan insofar as it was ostensibly obtained by design, premeditation, and careful calculation, raises the troubling issue about it being allowed to supercede the government’s right to appoint a COAS. Put another way, the question is should the government not have exercised its exclusive right to appoint an officer of its choice, even alighting on Bikram Singh if it so wished, rather than anointing someone pre-selected by a former army chief as per a succession plan it was in the know of and decided to back? It is an issue that’s at the heart of civilian control over the military in a democracy.
The government decides on the criterion to stress — merit or seniority – when filling high level posts. The norm is for the person to be first chosen and for the selection criterion to be trotted out later. Thus, Shyam Saran was elevated as Foreign Secretary, for instance, on the basis of merit, but his successor, Nirupama Rao, was favoured on the basis of seniority. To decide whom to appoint and why, is entirely the government’s outlook and prerogative. It is the uncertainty attending on the government’s decision that led Punjab politicians to canvas strongly with the government for Lieutenant General J.J. Singh’s promotion as COAS in 2005. It is, however, a dangerous precedent for the government to accede to an apparently motivated selection by a former COAS. With Vahnavati going public with the “succession plan”, appointing Bikram Singh as COAS will reinforce the impression of a government too dumb to see the stratagem behind the uncorrected birth-year and too weak and distracted to select an army chief on its own.
On this issue as in others, A.K. Antony is revealed as a Defence Minister who trusts his intuition and informed judgement less but advice and notings on files by civil servants in his Ministry more. Politicians are supposed to be masters at instantly “reading” people and situations. But Antony is showing himself as lacking in this basic skill-set — bad advertisement for a supposedly strong political leader.
[Published in ‘The New Indian Express’ on February 10, 2012 but entitled “A fishy succession plan” at http://expressbuzz.com/opinion/op-ed/a-fishy-succession-plan/361914.html ]