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Why One-Month Extension to Current Army Chief Is Hotly Debated ?

While the armed forces waited with baited breath over the successor of Chief of the Army Staff, Gen Manoj Pande, the government, just six days before his superannuation and preoccupied with the election campaign, gave a one-month extension to the General.

Government officials like Cabinet Secretary, Home Secretary, and others (including Director of ED) who run the government for politicians get extensions as a matter of routine. But extensions in the armed forces are rare, as the last extension was given to COAS Gen Gopal Bewoor, who had succeeded Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw.

That extension ensured that Lt Gen PS Bhagat, a Victoria Cross winner, was denied the post of COAS, facilitating the path for Lt Gen Tappy Raina to get the coveted job. Incidentally, both Bewoor and Bhagat were Rimcollians (studied at RIMC Dehradun) and good friends. Besides, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, on a visit to Northern Command, where Bhagat was Army Commander, had promised him a bright future.

A month’s extension in the armed forces is a first, though in one case, extension was given for one day. How does the 30-day extension affect the line of succession? VCOAS Lt Gen Upendra Dwivedi is the seniormost, followed by Lt Gen Ajai Singh, GoC-in-C Southern Command. Both are batchmates, but the tyranny of ‘order of merit’ at the time of graduating from IMA dictates seniority. By that count, Dwivedi is senior and has maintained that position since passing out of IMA. But both are to retire on June 30.

The next senior is the Northern Army Commander, Lt Gen Suchindra Kumar, followed by Lt Gen Raja Subramani of Central Command. Interestingly, all the generals named except the outgoing Chief are Engineer officers while others are Infanteers. Pande is the first Sapper officer to break the glass ceiling.

Traditionalists hold the position that extensions in the military are not par for the course as they disrupt the line of succession, and officers should refuse to accept extension. It is the prerogative of the government—the Appointments Committee of the Cabinet—to choose a Service Chief either by selection of superseding officers or even recalling the selected from retirement. Or follow the seniority principle. But Service rules should not be changed whimsically, as it sets a bad precedent. However, governments acting under the model code of conduct for the elections prefer not to make top-rung appointments during this time. But Modi 2.0 did name Admiral Dinesh Tripathi as Chief of Naval Staff on April 19, when the model code of conduct was in play.

The government has to be seen not violating the sacrosanct rule book of the military, though in the end, it is the government that will decide its choice of Service Chiefs, especially the Army Chief. Several instances of supersession can be cited, the most recent being the appointment of late Gen Bipin Rawat as COAS. Supersessions have happened in the Navy and Air Force as well. Superseded officers have generally resigned, but many continued to serve. Only one Service Chief has ever been dismissed—CNS Adm Vishnu Bhagat—for refusing to obey Cabinet orders. Instead, he offered provisions in the Navy Act in his defence. He took his case to court but received no joy. Similarly, former COAS Gen VK Singh took his case for a one-year extension of Service over his date of birth issue to the Supreme Court and had to yield.

So why the one-month extension to Gen Pande? It seemed the government wanted to steer clear of the model code of conduct during the election period. Also remember, all three—Pande, Dwivedi and Singh—are to be retired on June 30. If the government wanted to appoint senior-most Lt Gen Dwivedi as COAS, his name could have been announced on May 26, as it had appointed VAdm Tripathi CNS on April 19. Instead, the government gave Gen Pande a 30-day extension until June 30. The options open to the government in naming a new COAS now are: (i) appoint the seniormost Dwivedi; (ii) retire both Dwivedi and Singh and appoint either Suchindra Kumar or Raja Subramani; or (iii) supersede Dwivedi and appoint Singh by tweaking the rulebook.

As of now, it is highly unlikely that a new Army Chief would be announced before June 30.


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