The Army is grappling with uncomfortable uncertainty following the government’s decision to deviate from the norm of picking the senior-most commander as the Army chief. This comes from lack of clarity about the future plans of Eastern Army Commander, Lt General Praveen Bakshi, who was superseded when the government chose General Bipin Rawat as the Army chief last month.
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“Lt General Bakshi is keeping his cards close to his chest. Only he knows what he is going to do. He has met the RM (Raksha Mantri or Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar) twice but there is no clarity about his future plans. He can quit even before he retires in July, and this is causing a lot of uncertainty,” a senior Army officer told The Indian Express.
This situation has arisen at a time when General Rawat will want to have his own team of senior commanders quickly in place. Deviating from the norm of declaring the incoming Army chief more than two months ago, General Rawat’s ascension was announced by the government only 13 days before he took over, leaving him with little time to do any planning.
Besides meeting Parrikar twice, Lt General Bakshi had also called on General Rawat at his residence last Tuesday. Sources said that the discussions were courteous although the superseded Lt General felt that his military reputation had been damaged during the selection process.
Lt General Bakshi had also extended his support for General Rawat during his New Year-eve address to the officers of Eastern Command. It was then expected that he would continue to serve till his superannuation in July. But there have been indications in the past week that he may quit earlier.
According to sources, the Army top brass is still not aware of Lt General Bakshi’s next move, and wants an early end to this uncertainty. It is expected that the brass will raise the matter with Parrikar after January 15, when the minister is expected to be relatively free after distribution of tickets for the Goa assembly polls and the Army Day celebrations.
“No Army chief can function in such uncertainty. He needs his own set-up in place quickly. Now that a decision has been taken by the government and implemented, the controversy should be put to rest. But it continues and this is a cause for concern,” an Army officer said.
Lt General Bakshi is officially on leave until January 26, and this means he could be missing the annual Combined Commanders Conference to be chaired by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Dehradun on January 21. The Combined Commanders Conference is the only formal interaction of senior military commanders with the Prime Minister every year.
Lt General Bakshi was also absent from a meeting of Army commanders called by General Rawat in Delhi on January 10, ahead of the Combined Commanders Conference. The other superseded Army commander, Lt General P M Hariz, attended the meeting.
Although sources said that Lt General Bakshi had taken leave to look after an ailing parent in Chandigarh, it is highly unusual for an Army commander to proceed on such a long leave. “It is not correct for an operational command to be without its Army commander,” said another senior Army officer who has earlier served with Lt General Bakshi.
Eastern Command is one of the operational commands of the Army, looking after the disputed China border, besides the international boundary with Myanmar, Bangladesh and Bhutan. With the Assam Rifles under its operational command, the Kolkata-headquartered command is also responsible for counter-insurgency duties in the North-East.
The new mountain strike corps for the China border, which is in the process of being raised, is also placed under the Eastern Command. Sources said that considering the operational importance of Eastern Command, the government can transfer Lt General Bakshi to another command. Although highly unlikely, the government can also ask him to put in his papers. Depending upon when Lt General Bakshi hangs his uniform, it could open up an additional vacancy for an army commander for promotion.
There is no selection board for the post of an Army commander. All Lt Generals who have commanded a Corps are eligible to be an Army commander, provided they have two years of residual service left on the day of taking charge as the Army commander. The retirement age for a Lt General is 58 years.
Currently, there is one vacancy of an Army commander, at the Jaipur-headquartered South-Western Command, with Lt General Sarath Chand posted as the new Vice Chief of Army Staff. Lt General Abhay Krishna is the senior-most eligible officer to move to Jaipur, unless the government decides to transfer the incumbent Army commanders. The next senior officer in line is Lt General Ashok Ambre, who will be ineligible due to the two-year clause in case a vacancy is not created by February 28.
The Army refused to comment on the subject, and a questionnaire sent to Lt General Bakshi did not elicit a reply by Thursday evening.