Its best left to next govt to name the new Army Chief

As the country hurtles towards the denouement of perhaps the longest elections in recent memory, two seemingly unrelated but important events occurred on Monday.

One, the outgoing UPA government decided not to go ahead with constituting the ‘Snoopgate’ Commission to probe allegations of spying against a woman levelled against BJP’s prime ministerial candidate and Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi. Two, a writ petition against Indian Army’s Vice Chief of Staff Lt. Gen Dalbir Suhag, making him a key respondent in an alleged fake encounter case filed in Manipur High Court was dismissed on technical grounds, leaving the petitioners an option to file another application in the Gauhati High Court on a later date.

I talk about both these events in the same breath because the UPA government had gone to the Election Commission asking for its permission on both counts. Its ironical that the UPA brains trust decided not to go ahead with the ‘Snoopgate’ Commission although the EC had given it a clearance to do so. Moreover, many of UPA’s stalwarts had emphatically declared last week that it will constitute the panel before May 16 come what may.

In the case of appointing the new Army Chief (current incumbent Gen Bikram Singh retires on 31st July), the Defence Ministry has gone to the Election Commission again, seeking clearance to appoint Gen Bikram Singh successor. Lt Gen Dalbir Singh Suhag, being the senior-most officer, is widely seen as the man to take over the Indian Army on August 1.

The Commission is likely to take a call on clearing the process for appointment of the next Army Chief any day this week although as of now there appears to be a divide within the commission on the issue.

By all accounts, the Election Commission had made it clear as early late March that the Model Code of Conduct “is not applicable to any matter pertaining directly to the defence forces, be it in the recruitments/promotion for defence forces…and consequently no reference need be sent to the Commission pertaining to the model code in these matters…”

So why did the Defence Ministry, led by the ultra-cautious–some would say timid–AK Antony once again refer the matter to the Election Commission? One theory doing the rounds is: as usual, Defence Minister Antony, as is his wont,  does not want to risk any decision in the face of the BJP’s stand that all important appointments must be left to the next government and therefore is taking shelter under technicalities. Typically, if the EC gives a go ahead, Antony will hide behind the clearance and say ‘I went to through proper channel.’ If the EC declines permission, Antony will pretend to throw up his hands and say ‘what can I do. The EC did not permit us, even though we wanted to appoint the next Army Chief!’

Whatever the reason, for the first time in many years, the appointment of the Army Chief has got embroiled in a political battle but viewed dispassionately, both the government and the Opposition could have avoided this unseemly controversy.

There are two compelling reasons why the Army Chief’s appointment could wait. One is the question of legitimacy versus legality. Legally, the government can go ahead and name the next Army Chief, since the UPA-II is neither a defeated government nor a care-taker government. But given that we are less than a fortnight away from election results, there is a question of the government’s legitimacy. Propriety demands that the outgoing government leaves all important decision–financial and administrative–to the incoming government. By that count, the current government might as well complete the process of appointing the next Army Chief. But it must leave the announcement to the new government whoever the officer is.

Two, as fellow defence beat journalist Ajay Banerjee of The Tribune points out, there exists a precedent for this situation. The outgoing NDA government processed the file for appointment of a new Navy Chief during election mode in May 2004 but it was left to the UPA-I government to announce the name of Adm. Arun Prakash as the next Chief of Naval Staff on June 1, 2004 (see, exactly 10 days after the Manmohan Singh government had taken charge on May 22, 2004. Arun Prakash took over on August 1, 2004. A similar situation exists this year, only this time it is pertaining to the Army Chief.

Whoever is the next incumbent as the Chief of Army Staff–and there is no indication to believe the next government will go against the seniority principle–will start his innings on a strong wicket if the announcement is made by the fresh government in Delhi. Whoever it is will not carry the baggage of being the previous government’s man, if the new government makes the appointment. A new government will have more than 10 days to name the next COAS.

And finally, this sequence of events will help keep the Army and by extension the armed forces out of politics.

Hopefully, all stakeholders will show the maturity to handle this delicate matter deftly.