As army chief shuffles generals, western command without a head (Photo: Courtesy Getty Images)
By Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 31st July 16
A crucial series of top army appointments have remained vacant for months for no discernible reason. On Monday, the army’s most prestigious and vital operational command --- the Chandi Mandir based Western Command --- will be headed by a makeshift commander.
Even this temporary appointment is being made by army headquarters to avert criticism. Meanwhile, inexplicably, a fully qualified and experienced lieutenant general has been placed on the sidelines. Lieutenant General DRN Soni, who has successfully commanded a corps in Bhatinda and fulfills the residual age criteria needed to become an army commander, has been “attached” to army headquarters --- effectively placing him on hold.
Business Standard learns this is the latest shot fired in the long-running contest between the infantry and the armoured corps to have a larger number of so-called “army commanders” --- the army’s seven top lieutenant generals, each called a “general officer commanding-in-chief”, or GOC-in-C. Heading the army’s western, northern, eastern, southern, south-western and central commands, and the army training command (ARTRAC), these seven generals, along with the army chief and vice chief, monopolise vital decisions on the army’s future and promotions to the rank of lieutenant general.
Army insiders say Lt Gen Soni --- who is available and qualified for promotion to GOC-in-C Western Command --- is being denied this job since he is from the armoured corps. Instead, the army chief, an infantry officer, is slotting him into another appointment, which will render him ineligible to participate in army commanders’ conferences.
This will be presented as a fait accompli to the incoming chief, Lt Gen Praveen Bakshi, also from the armoured corps. While Bakshi’s appointment as army chief has not been announced, he will be the senior-most officer on November 30, the day the current chief, General Dalbir Singh, retires. Traditionally, the senior-most officer remaining in service is appointed army chief.
If proper procedure were to be followed, Bakshi --- who is currently GOC-in-C Eastern Command in Kolkata --- would be moved to army headquarters as vice-chief of the army staff (VCAS), as soon as he is announced as the next army chief. This allows an incoming chief the time to familiarize himself with ongoing army projects, procurements, and with functional procedures within South Block.
Instead, Bakshi is being kept at arm’s length from New Delhi, with the VCAS appointment now going to another infantry officer, Lt Gen Bipin Rawat, who is currently GOC-in-C Southern Command. Sources say the army is moving Rawat to Delhi even though he has commanded the southern army for just seven months. With two more years of service remaining, Rawat will fill the powerful VCAS slot through much of Bakshi’s tenure.
Many veterans are expressing disappointment that what should be healthy inter-arm rivalry is morphing into a blatant, no-holds-barred tussle for appointments. Lieutenant General (Retired) Aditya Singh, a former GOC-in-C Southern Command and an armoured corps officer, points out that all three of India’s strike corps are currently being commanded by infantry officers --- something that has never happened before.
“Strike corps are mechanized formations, based on tanks and infantry combat vehicles. That is why mechanized forces officers have traditionally commanded them. Having all three strike corps commanded by infantry officers can hardly be a coincidence. It suggests parochialism,” says Aditya Singh.
These regrettable turf battles are not just confined to the army. At the broader, tri-service level, the impulse to safeguard turf is now threatening to scuttle the important experiment of the Andaman & Nicobar Command (ANC). The ANC is India’s first tri-service command, containing elements of the army, navy and air force; it was to be commanded in rotation by flag officers from all three services. Instead, the navy is consolidating its hold on it, with the appointment, on February 1, of a second consecutive commander.
It was hoped that the ANC would lead the way to more tri-service commands. Instead, in what analysts see as a quid pro quo, the three services are jointly scuttling the notion of tri-service command by handing ANC over to the navy. In return, the air force covets the strategic forces command, while an army general could permanently head the integrated defence staff (IDS).