The Indian Air Force (IAF) chief is unhappy that a helicopter pilot and not a fighter jockey might succeed him, even indicating that he was not averse to the seniority rule that has decided the issue in the past being overturned.
"The records of all contenders are available with the government. It is the prerogative of the government to chose the military leaders they want," Air Chief Marshal SP Tyagi said at a press conference in New Delhi on Thursday ahead of Sunday's IAF Day parade that will mark the 74th anniversary of the force.
He was responding to a question on murmurs in certain quarters against Air Marshal FH Major, currently the next in line, succeeding Tyagi when he retires on March 31, 2007. Major currently heads the Shillong-based Eastern Air Command.
In keeping with the tradition, Major's name heads the list forwarded to the cabinet committee on appointments of the four seniormost air marshals on the day Tyagi retires. In the past, this has been a mere formality, with the officer heading the list getting the nod.
This time, however, there is a whispering campaign that one of the other three officers—all of whom are fighter pilots, should be selected.
"The IAF chief has no role (in the selection process). It is not my call," Tyagi maintained.
"My opinion is of no consequence. The government is not obliged to consult a serving chief on his successor," he added.
Responding to a question on whether the principle of seniority should be followed, as has invariably been the case in the past, Tyagi retorted: "This, the government has to be asked. Let a decision be taken and then we can debate on it."
This is the clearest indication yet that Tyagi has given that he would not be averse to the seniority concept being overturned. This is something that has never happened in the 74-year history of the IAF.
Seniority apart, there are three other factors in Major's favour.
The first is the Shaurya Chakra, India's second highest gallantry award in peace time, he received for a daring rescue of passengers trapped in a stranded cable car in Himachal Pradesh in the early 1990s. He was a group captain at the time.
The other is the fact that he has flown Mi-35 helicopter gunships. This requires skills even sharper than fighter pilots as the helicopter flies much slower and at lower heights, making it greatly vulnerable to enemy fire.
The third is that the Major has commanded IAF Kalaidunda, a frontline base that is home to two squadrons of MiG-27 fighters.
Only once before has the IAF been headed by a non-fighter pilot chief. That was in the late 1970s, when Air Chief Marshal Idris Hasan Latif, a transport pilot, got the nod on grounds of seniority.