General Bikram Singh assumed charge as the 25th Chief of the Indian Army on Thursday, May 31 and received the ceremonial baton from his predecessor – General VK Singh. The turbulence and controversy generated by General VK Singh’s defiant actions and statements on various issues during the last phase of his tenure has created an environment that is not conducive to what may be described as a ‘smooth’ transition – and there are many challenges – both personal and professional that General Bikram Singh (better known as ‘Bikki’) would have to address almost immediately. Good luck General Bikram – and be careful of the many banana peels strewn on your path.
A small mention here of the Sikh Light Infantry (LI) regiment in which General Bikram was commissioned in March 1972 – that is more than 40 years ago. One of the elite regiments of the Indian Army, the Sikh LI can be legitimately proud of the fact that it has thrown up two Army Chiefs in recent years – the first being General Ved Malik who was the Chief during the Kargil War of 1999.
Tracing their origins to the first Corps of Mazhabi Sikh Pioneers which was formed in 1850, the modern Sikhl LI was formed in 1944 and earned its spurs in the Burma campaign of World War II. Post 1947, the regiment has been deployed in every major combat operation and theatre and the new Chief epitomizes the valor and spirit that is sacred to the military as an institution and of which the Indian Army has been an outstanding exemplar for more than 200 years.
Restoring the élan and combat readiness of the Indian Army which has taken a beating over the last decade plus will be of paramount importance for the new Chief and his predecessor had highlighted the scale of the inadequacies in the Army’s inventory in the letter to the Prime Minister – which alas was leaked.
However this is only one of the many challenges that the new Army Chief will have to address and the other two which are equally critical are to remove the ‘bitterness’ in civil-military relations that the Raksha Mantri had referred to; and ensure that all the issues raised by his predecessor are pursued – and taken to their logical conclusion – within the time available to him.
The first remarks made to the media on May 31 are encouraging and along expected lines. Very prudently the new Chief refused to comment on his predecessor’s actions – despite the latter having made some veiled and less than complimentary references to the Eastern Command, which Gen. Bikram was heading prior to elevation to Chief. These remarks were in relation to the case of Lt. General Dalbir Suhag – whose appointment as the Army Commander in Kolkata has been placed on hold by General VK Singh.
It is this personal context that will prove to be a major test to the new Chief's perspicacity and leadership qualities. One of the central elements of the many controversies associated with the VK Singh tenure is the date of birth issue. There is a widely held perception that this was engineered by previous Army Chiefs to ensure than Gen. Bikram would become the Army Chief in mid 2012. The favoritism twist to this interpretation is self-evident and to my mind , unfortunate.
But in keeping with the prevailing trend in India of intrusive transparency into every aspect of government decisions, two charges have been made against Gen. Bikram in the public domain and the matter referred to the judiciary. The first pertains to an encounter with terrorists in J&K and the other in relation to a UN Peace Keeping operation. In both cases Gen. Bikram is being indicted for command failure.
This pattern of aspersions being cast on the appointment of the new Chief will make significant demands on his time and focus and his own actions will be under intense media scrutiny on every issue that has a VK Singh linkage. Thus it was encouraging to hear Gen. Bikram reiterate that no issue will be swept under the carpet and that all matters would be dealt with by ‘the rule-book’.
The focus by Gen Bikram on looking ahead – and not through the rear-view mirror as he put it is well-taken. The Indian Army is robust and can weather these convulsions at the higher ranks and must move ahead. But his challenge is not the view in the mirror – it is the multiple storms and under-currents that have been triggered by his predecessor – and the aspersions cast on the leadership that preceded VK Singh.
Beginning with the ignominy of the booze Brigadier followed by the dal General and later the Adarsh allegations and the Sukhna scam that saw a Military Secretary being stripped of his rank, and now most recently a mini-mutiny in one Army unit – the internal challenges are varied and complex..
Carrying his senior officers in restoring the internal balances inherent to a one million plus Army is the top most priority and here Gen. Bikram begins with a personal handicap. But hopefully the internal resilience of the Army will ensure that the collective interest is prioritized over the personal or the sectarian.
The larger challenge and gap in the higher defence management that came to the fore in the VK Singh tenure was the manner in which the political establishment with the Defence Minister at the helm have allowed grave matters of national security to languish and deteriorate in the manner that they did. Inefficiencies and corruption in defense production and procurement a la the Tatra fiasco and denying the Army funding for modernization are structural problems that have plagued the military for decades. Redressing this will have to begin among legislators – the elected representatives - and one hopes that there will be more debates on reforming the Indian military in the Parliament than on national television!
General Bikram Singh assumed charge as the 25th Chief of the Indian Army on Thursday, May 31 and received the ceremonial baton from his predecessor – General VK Singh. The turbulence and controversy generated by General VK Singh’s defiant actions and statements on various issues during the last phase of his tenure has created an environment that is not conducive to what may be described as a ‘smooth’ transition – and there are many challenges – both personal and professional that General Bikram Singh (better known as ‘Bikki’) would have to address almost immediately.
Good luck General Bikram – and be careful of the many banana peels strewn on your path.