Uncertainty looms over Army chief's continuation

As both the government and Army chief General V K Singh sought to strike a compromise, each making a climbdown on their positions, uncertainty still looms large over whether Gen Singh will continue to head 1.3-million-strong fighting force till May 31 when retires.

Regardless of the spin-doctoring by Gen Singh’s advocate U U Lalit, that the matter has been “amicably settled” and that the Supreme Court has restored the Army chief’s “honour and integrity”, the unprecedented step of taking the government to court on his date of birth issue has created a trust deficit between him and the powerful bureaucracy and the political leadership.

The Army chief’s withdrawal of his petition after the Supreme Court bench’s fait accompli -- backdown on the plea or it is dismissed -- and the government’s action in withdrawing the December 30, 2011, order rejecting his statutory complaint, were indication enough that back channel communication had taken place between the two sides to settle for a mutually agreeable solution.

Such a solution would have the Army chief complete his tenure till May 31, 2012 and retire, paving the way for Eastern Command General Officer Commanding-in-Chief Lieutenant General Bikramjit Singh to take over as the next Chief of Army Staff.

Retired and serving military officers -- from the Army, Air Force and the Navy -- were of the opinion that Gen Singh should resign immediately since it was he who had described his moving the Supreme Court on the age dispute as a matter of “honour and integrity”.

“The Army chief can accept the Supreme Court's decision, does nothing and completes his tenure. He could also decide to resign to salvage his reputation,” Maj Gen Nilendra Kumar, former Judge Advocate General – highest law officer in the Army – told Deccan Herald.

Going by the Army rule, an officer only has the right to offer his resignation; it is the government’s prerogative to accept it or not. But from all available indications, Gen Singh will continue in office till May 31.

Along with wife Bharti Singh, he left on a two-day visit to Jaipur to attend an Army function under the aegis of the South Western Command. He was fully aware of the Supreme Court’s position before boarding an Army flight for Jaipur. Gen Singh is also scheduled to leave for Britain on a five-day tour beginning February 13.

In the Supreme Court, Attorney General Goolam E Vahanvati assured the judges that the government has full faith in Gen Singh's leadership and he could continue till May 31, 2012.

If Gen Singh completes his tenure, Lt Gen Bikramjit Singh is slated to replace him at the top. If selected, Gen Bikramjit Singh will be the second Sikh Army chief after Gen J J Singh, during whose tenure the discrepancy on Gen V K Singh's date of birth resurfaced after a gap of three decades.

But if Gen Singh decides to resign before his scheduled retirement date, the situation could turn out to be complex as there are three senior officers -- all Army Commanders -- who would be in line for the top post, even as they retire on dates very close to each other. GOC-in-C (Western Command) Lt Gen S R Ghosh is the seniormost among the seven Army Commanders, but he too retires on May 31.

Besides, Central Command GOC-in-C Lt Gen V K Ahluwalia and Southern Command GOC-in-C Lt Gen Ashok K Singh retire on April 30, leaving the government with little choice but to select an officer senior enough to remain Army chief for at least two years which, in this case, would be Lt Gen Bikramjit Singh.

Maj Gen Kumar said that in the event of Gen Singh’s resignation, the government would have have the option of ordering Army vice chief Gen S K Singh to fill in for three months after which Lt Gen Bikramjit Singh could take over. “This would not upset the anticipated succession plan,” Maj Gen Kumar said.

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