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.

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!

Good luck General Bikram – and be careful of the many banana peels  strewn on your path.