New Army Chief will need to manage the upheaval and stabilise the system
General Bikram Singh assumes command of one of the pillars of our democratic structure,with the daunting task of repairing the damage done to it by the events of the last few months. There can be little doubt that he is as professionally well equipped as his contemporaries,and his predecessors,to head the Indian Army. Having said that,it is possibly also appropriate to state that he will need to harness all the professional and personal skills that he can muster to restore the organisation to an even keel.
Civil-military relations,rarely cordial at the best of times,are at their worst in living memory right now. Together with his senior staff,the new chief will have to re-establish a working relationship that will not only set aside the acrimony of the recent past,but move into high gear to address the inadequacies of the national security apparatus in an effective manner. In that process,he must capitalise on the positive developments that have emerged from what has transpired in the last few months.
First,there seems to be an acknowledgment of the fact that modernisation and improving the operational preparedness of our armed forces cannot be delayed. This is evident in the sudden spurt of decision-making activity in the ministry of defence,as far as procurement of weapons and equipment is concerned,and in the greater delegation of financial powers to the service headquarters for this purpose. Second,there has been positive movement on welfare measures for armed forces personnel on issues like one rank,one pension. The new chief must keep up the momentum that has been generated by his predecessor in this regard. To his credit,General V.K. Singh has certainly succeeded in spurring the political and bureaucratic establishment of the ministry of defence into action. Needless to say,Bikram Singh must also continue the process of internal cleansing set in motion by his predecessor. There must be zero tolerance of corruption within the army.
The political leadership of the ruling dispensation and of the parties in opposition,as well as the civilian bureaucracy,will need to go more than halfway in assisting the new incumbent in this regard. This is as much because of the compelling need to arrest the downward spiral as to strengthen the hands of the new chief in asserting his authority over an organisation that has probably never before been subjected to such division and subversion of loyalties at the senior level. In managing the upheaval that may well have taken place in the army hierarchy,Bikram Singh will need to raise the bar on personal standards of integrity and fair play to stabilise the system. He will also need to set aside parochial and regimental loyalties to enable the organisation emerge from the turbulence to which it has been subjected. Those in the hierarchy who find it uncomfortable to serve under the new chief because of the loyalties they owed to the earlier incumbent must have the good grace to either put that phase behind them,or to put in their papers and go home.
As an Indian Army veteran who has had the privilege of continued interaction with the serving fraternity at various levels through opportunities provided by invitations to address student officers at institutions like the National Defence College and the Defence Services Staff College,and by visits to units for regimental functions I can state with some conviction that the developments of recent months have not had any serious adverse impact on the morale of the middle and junior level officers and of the rank and file. Having said that,however,I can state with equal conviction that there are some other serious factors that are beginning to have an adverse impact on that section of the Indian Army,the cutting edge that has seen us through all our battles and counter-insurgency operations. The shortage of officers in units and the stress occasioned by the extraneous demands of the establishment on the unit commanders and the junior officers are leading to a dilution of the officer-jawan relationship because the junior officers are just not getting time to be with their men.
In that context,the five-star culture that seems to have found its way into the Indian Army in the last couple of decades needs to be rooted out. Unit commanders,their junior leaders and the rank and file,who are diverted to meet these demands,would then be able to undertake training,carry out maintenance of weapons and equipment and,in the process,spend more time with their command. This must be dealt with from the top,with examples being set by the chief himself,his army commanders,senior staff at headquarters and other commanders down the line. The chief does not need government approval or sanction to implement this measure.
Another aspect that merits attention in the same context is the role of women in the Indian Army. Whereas induction of women into the armed forces is a matter that will hopefully be addressed institutionally by the political and military hierarchy,the role of wives in the running of formations and units is something the army chief and his colleagues can remedy,again without reference to the government or any other authority. I have absolutely no doubt that Bikram Singh will earn the eternal gratitude of the middle and junior level officers,their wives,and of the rank and file (and their wives),if he initiates measures that ensure the welfare of families and reverts to time-tested activities purely at battalion or regimental level.
Finally,this may also be the time for the political establishment to do some serious introspection and emerge from the incomprehensible cocoon within which they seem to have ensconced themselves over the years insofar as dealing with the armed forces is concerned. The Indian military has always been,and will continue to be,subservient to civilian control. But civilian control is political control and not civilian bureaucratic control,which is what the men in uniform (and I dare say,many others) resent. To that extent,our political leadership,particularly those in government,must institutionalise mechanisms for dealing directly with the military leadership. While it is their prerogative to utilise advice given by the civilian bureaucracy,the bureaucrat does not have to be the go-between or the interpreter.
The writer,a retired lieutenant general,is distinguished fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses,Delhi