The controversy over the appointment of the next Army chief — prompted by the BJP’s protest to the Election Commission — has come as a surprise to most defence watchers, considering that in the past there have been no such tussle and service chiefs have invariably been appointed even during transition, primarily because the precedence of seniority has been mostly followed.
In fact, the last time that the BJP was in power, it cleared the appointment of a service chief just days before it was voted out of power. In the middle of May 2004, the NDA government had cleared the appointment of Admiral Arun Prakash as the 18th Chief of Naval Staff.
As is the case with the Army Chief’s appointment, the top post of the Navy was being vacated on July 31 and Prakash was cleared barely a week before the UPA-I government was sworn in. However there was no controversy over the matter as the issue had not been raised by any political party and the Election Commission was not even in the picture.
The BJP has also objected to the appointment of a new Army chief on the grounds that such appointments are done two months in advance and can be announced by June 1. However, there have been instances in the past when the appointment had been announced two-three months in advance. One being the case of General Bikram Singh, who was announced as V K Singh’s successor in 2012 three months in advance. Similarly, Admiral Nirmal Verma was announced as the next Navy Chief three months before the retirement of Admiral Sureesh Mehta.
In the past, the appointment of a service chief has barely ever taken political colour given that the principle of seniority has been followed strictly — that the seniormost three-star general is appointed to the top spot. It is due to this that the appointments have gone through without any controversy even in the most difficult of times. In fact, the last time the hierarchy was disturbed was when Indira Gandhi was the PM
An exception of course was the recent matter of the appointment of the Navy Chief after the sudden and unexpected resignation of Admiral D K Joshi in February. Vice Admiral Shekhar Sinha, despite being the seniormost, was overlooked for the post of Admiral given the circumstances of Joshi’s exit — due to the spate of accidents in the Western Command that was headed by Sinha. The unusual circumstances of the appointment had prompted the Defence Ministry to take approval from the EC before announcing the decision last month.