Why the New Army Chief Should be Named by the New Government

As the country reaches 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 investigate allegations of spying on a woman against Narendra Modi, the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate and Gujarat chief minister.

Two, a writ petition that made the Indian Army’s Vice Chief of Staff Lt. Gen Dalbir Singh Suhag a key respondent in an alleged fake encounter case filed in the 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. It is interesting that the UPA brains trust decided not to go ahead with the ‘Snoopgate’ commission although the Election Commission (EC) had given it the clearance to do so. Moreover, many of the ruling Congress’ stalwarts had emphatically declared last week that the government will constitute the panel before May 16, the day votes are counted, come what may.

The Defence Ministry has sought clearance from the EC to appoint the successor to Army Chief Gen Bikram Singh, who retires on July 31. Lt Gen Suhag, being the senior-most officer, is widely seen as the man who will take over the Indian Army on August 1.

The Election Commission is likely to take a call on clearing the process for the 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 after the defence ministry resubmitted its query. At least one of the three-members is of the view that the current government must not name the next Army Chief.

In late March, the Election Commission had made it clear 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 call him timid — AK Antony refer the matter to the Election Commission? One theory doing the rounds is that 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 is therefore taking the shelter of technicalities.

So, if the EC gives a go ahead, Antony can use the clearance to say “I went through the proper channel.” And if it declines permission, the minister can 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 and an unseemly controversy that both the government and the Opposition could have avoided.

There are two compelling reasons why the Army Chief’s appointment can 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 the question of the government’s legitimacy. Propriety demands that the outgoing government leave all important decisions — 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 must leave the announcement to the new government.

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 the appointment of a new Navy Chief during election time 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 http://pib.nic.in/newsite/erelease.aspx?relid=1868), exactly 10 days after the Manmohan Singh government had taken charge on May 22, 2004.

Arun Prakash took over on August 1, 2004.

Whoever is the next incumbent as the Chief of Army Staff — and there is no indication that 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. He will then not carry the baggage of being the previous government’s man. 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.