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Now, who’s politicising the army chief’s appointment?

The media’s lack of interest could allow the government to get away with both unconstitutional behaviour and also a possible immoral outcome. This is why this Supreme Court case is so critical, writes Karan Thapar.

columns Updated: Apr 27, 2014 15:18 IST

Should the outgoing UPA government appoint the next army chief or would that be improper and also an intrusion into the mandate of its successor? First, General VK Singh, a former army chief, and then his party, the BJP, have made this a significant electoral issue. They’ve petitioned the Election Commission as well as the President. So what’s the answer?

First, a few facts. The appointment of a new army chief is a routine administrative decision. It’s necessary because a vacancy looms on the horizon. Second, normally the most senior lieutenant general gets the job. Seniority is the determining principle. Third, when General Bikram Singh, the incumbent, succeeded General VK Singh the decision was announced three months in advance.

There’s no reason to believe the UPA will act contrary to the above facts. It’s just that its decision will be announced in the middle of the present election campaign. Hence the question: Is this an appropriate and fitting time to appoint a new army chief?

The only grounds for suggesting that the answer is no is if the man appointed is seen as partisan or less than independent. But if he is the most senior that will not be the case.

On the other hand to deliberately leave the decision to the next government would have two adverse consequences. First, it would smack of politicising the army chief selection, which should always be kept above politics. Second, it wouldn’t leave enough time for the new government, thus creating handover problems.

Let me explain. Ajay Prasad, who was defence secretary under Mr Vajpayee, says a minimum of two months is needed to select the new chief. This is because four or five names are usually in contention, they need intelligence clearance by multiple agencies and, thereafter, the Appointments Committee of the Cabinet chooses one name, not by meeting in person but by circulating the file to all its members. Thereafter, the chief-designate works alongside the incumbent for at least two months to ensure a smooth handover. This means the total process requires at least four months, possibly five.

The earliest a new government can take over is May 17. General Bikram Singh retires on July 31. So even if it acts on day one it has only two months and 13 days in hand. That’s simply not enough.

This is why the appointment has to be made by the present government. If announced on May 1 it would be exactly three months before the present chief’s retirement, which is what happened in 2012. That’s in keeping with both technical requirements and established convention.

Two more facts that should stymie the BJP and General VK Singh’s attempts to create controversy. First, as The Hindu reported at the time, Admiral Arun Prakash’s appointment as navy chief was cleared by the outgoing NDA government on May 11, 2004, just days before Mr Vajpayee conceded defeat. If that was acceptable, why is it improper to appoint an army chief in the middle of this campaign?

Second, the senior-most lieutenant general in the army is Dalbir Singh Suhag. Many suspect the reason VK Singh wants the decision postponed to the next government is because he hopes it will supersede Suhag. The next in line is lieutenant general Ashok Singh, VK Singh’s samdhi.

So, now, who’s politicising the army chief’s appointment? And who’s following established practice? Suddenly it all seems topsy-turvy and upside-down.

The views expressed by the author are personal