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Army chief selection dogs India politics

Rivalry between army factions comes to fore as main political parties wrangle over succession issue.

Last updated: 01 May 2014 09:52
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VK Singh (R) had penalised Bikram Singh's (L) loyal Dalbir Singh (not in the pic) for a 'botched' operation [File]

Indian soldiers and sailors may be proud professionals who want their forces to be free of politics.

But in the current election season, the succession problem in the army and the navy has been complicated by the politics that the men in uniform want to keep out.

While the present government headed by the Congress Party-led United Progressive Alliance is seeking to announce the country's next army chief, the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) has said the announcement should be deferred until the next government takes charge.

Results for the ongoing parliamentary elections will be announced on May 16 and the BJP, as several opinion polls suggest, looks like a frontrunner at the moment.

"Why is this government in such a hurry to announce the successor for General Bikram Singh (the current army chief). There seems to be some ploy behind it," Ravi Shankar Prasad, the BJP spokesperson, said.

But the Congress Party says they are only trying to finalise the appointment of the next army chief in keeping with the seniority principle.

"Dalbir Singh is the senior most lieutenant-general and the present chief has recommended him. The succession is logical," insisted Congress minister and party spokesman Manish Tiwari.

 

General Bikram Singh retires on July 31 and has strongly recommended his vice-chief Lieutenant General Dalbir Singh Suhag to succeed him.

"But it is the tradition to announce the chief about two months before the incumbent chief retires. Why is the present government in such a hurry," asked Vijay Kumar Singh, former army chief who is a BJP candidate from Ghaziabad near the capital, New Delhi.

Many feel it is Singh who has influenced the BJP to challenge the succession in the army.

Bitter rivalries 

As army chief, VK Singh had penalised Dalbir Singh, then commanding the 3rd Indian army corps at Rangapahar in northeast India, for a botched up intelligence operation under his command.

VK Singh had issued an order that Dalbir should not be promoted as commander of India's Eastern Army - but the new chief Bikram Singh reversed that order within 15 days of VK Singh's retirement.

The bad blood in the army top brass is affecting the morale of the force as never before. Officers are getting divided into factions. The army has seen nothing like this before and this will ruin our professionalism

Ashis Das, Retired army colonel

Dalbir Singh went on to become eastern army commander and then vice-chief of Indian army, and now seems to be well on the way to become next army chief.

But not if VK Singh, now a powerful BJP politician, has his way.

The feuds between rival army lobbies led by VK Singh and the Bikram Singh-Dalbir Singh groups have threatened to split the country's army top brass down the middle for the last two years.

VK Singh was accused of trying to play down his age by a year to ensure he remained chief long enough to deny Bikram Singh the top job.

He is also blamed for pulling up Dalbir Singh for the botched intelligence operation "purely out of malice".

But VK Singh denies the charge and says Dalbir Singh was pulled up for 'purely professional reasons'.

A military intelligence unit - Corps of Intensive Surveillance (CIS) - under Dalbir Singh's command was prosecuted by the civil police in the northeastern state of Assam for an illegal raid on the house of a military contractor, Poona Gogoi, and for stealing cash and valuables during the 2011 raid.

Assam Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi asked VK Singh to punish the guilty officers which he did after a proper military enquiry. But once he retired, these officers were let off.

"Dalbir Singh was pulled up because he failed to move against the guilty officers, even after complaints against them from within the unit. He sought to protect those guilty," says a military intelligence colonel posted in the northeast, but on condition of anonymity.

'Rogue' intelligence unit

And if this was not trouble enough for the army chief-designate, a writ petition moved by one Phijam Manikumar in the northeastern state of Manipur this April accused the same 'rogue' military intelligence unit for killing his brother Phijam Naobi and two others in March, 2010.

Manikumar's petition alleges that one Major Ravi Kiran of Military Intelligence accused the CIS unit of killing the three behind an army mess in Rangapahar and that Dalbir Singh had refused to pull them up or cooperate with the police investigations.

Some question the timing of this petition and see it as a ploy to stop Dalbir Singh from being declared the chief on grounds of doubtful competence.

"The bad blood in the army top brass is affecting the morale of the force as never before. Officers are getting divided into factions, some supporting VK Singh and others the Bikram Singh-Dalbir Singh group. The army has seen nothing like this before and this will ruin our professionalism," said Ashis Das, a retired army colonel.

VK Singh is now a politician of the BJP who may complicate matters further, he said.

The Navy also witnessed much hiccups after Admiral DK Joshi resigned two months ago, owing 'moral responsibility' for the many submarine accidents in the last few months.

Vice Admiral Shekhar Sinha, the senior most officers, was passed over and Vice Admiral RK Dhawan made the Navy chief after two months of Joshi's resignation.

Sinha resigned and soon suffered a heart attack.

"The Navy did not have a chief for two months, which is unexpected. There was much going on as the government sought to decide the next chief," said a senior officer in naval operations who wished to remain anonymous because he is not authorised to speak to media.

"Now that the Navy is woefully short of submarines and the accidents have dented the morale, the least we expect is strong leadership from the top," said retired rear-admiral Bimalendu Guha.

Successions have created bad blood within the forces before, but it has remained within the few contenders for the top job.

"But now the one who becomes chief, tends to treat some as favourite who supported his succession and others as suspect because they were for someone else," explained Das.

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Source:
Al Jazeera
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