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Tale of two Generals

Sankar Sen |


General Bipin Rawat has been appointed as the next Chief of the Army Staff and has assumed charge on New Year’s day. His appointment has surprised many and become the subject-matter of controversy, since it has gone against the decades-old tradition of the Indian army to appoint the senior-most general as the Commander-in-Chief. General Rawat supersedes two officers senior to him ~ Lieutenant General Praveen Bakshi and Lieutenant General P M Hariz.

The tenure of the army chief is for three years or till the age of 62, whichever comes earlier.  In the appointment of the army chief, supersession of senior officers is not without precedent.  While appointing the successor to General K V Krishna Rao, the Indira Gandhi government overlooking the then senior-most officer, Lieutenant General S K Sinha, appointed General Arun Vaidya as the Commander-in-Chief.

The procedure followed for the appointment of the army chief is that the Ministry of Defence forwards the names and dossiers of five senior-most army officers to the Appointments Committee of Cabinet (ACC). The ACC may call for a longer list if it feels that there are a few more suitable names deserving consideration. The government is competent to make the choice of the army chief from among the qualified officers, after going through their records.

There is widespread speculation regarding the reasons behind the government’s decision to appoint General Rawat as the Army Chief superseding two of his seniors. General Rawat has vast and varied experience in tackling terrorism, particularly cross-border terrorism which is bleeding the country. He served in the Jammu & Kashmir region for a long time. He has commanded the famous Dagger Division at Baramulla, which is responsible for guarding the most crucial part of the Line of Control. He has commanded a corps in the north-east. He also oversaw planning and execution of the cross-border operation across the Myanmar border in July 2015.  He made his mark as an outstanding officer from his early years in service. He was awarded the Sword of Honour and declared the best all-round general cadet.

The Appointments Committee may have taken into consideration the fact that General Rawat has the best expertise to deal with the combustible situation on the Line of Control and international borders. Terrorist threats coming  across the border require competent understanding and handling. Of late, the army has suffered many casualties and the jihadi terrorists have stepped up their operations across the border. General Rawat’s hands-on experience may have tipped the scales in his favour and persuaded the government to appoint him as the next Army Chief. He has a difficult and challenging role before him.

However, it is felt that the Government should have made the decision regarding appointment of the Army Chief months earlier as this would have allowed the controversies and speculation to die down before the new chief assumes office. Perhaps the intention of the government was to make the announcement after the winter session of Parliament to avoid controversies. If so, it was a wrong move.

General Rawat’s elevation was done on the basis of  seniority-cum-merit. Five senior-most generals were being considered and the third in seniority among them was picked. The challenges before the chief are many as 2016 was a difficult year for the Indian Army. Three major terrorist strikes at Pathankot, Uri and Nagrota on important bases showed that Pakistan’s proxy war will continue and jihadis  are able to cock a snook at the Indian army.    

There has also been a change of guard in the Pakistan Army. Qamar Javed Bajwa has succeeded General Raheel Sharif as the Army Chief. General Bajwa has extensive experience of operating in Kashmir. He commanded the important 10 Corps in Pakistan and is well-acquainted with the country's policy towards India. He is reportedly a proponent of strong civil-military relations. This, as per one account, is the main reason why Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who has often sparred with the army, selected him for the job. He is also regarded as low-key, and unlike his predecessor, camera-shy. General Bajwa has quickly moved to stamp his own identity on the Pakistan army by carrying out a major reshuffle after taking over from General Raheel Sharif. He has replaced ISI Chief, Lt General Rizwan Akhtar, with Lt General Naveed Mukhtar. The other key transfer is of Lt General Asim Bajwa as Arms IG. Lt General Bilal Akbar has been appointed Chief of General Staff.

However, it is premature to expect any change in the Pakistan army's policy towards India. It views India as an existential threat and when it comes to the Pakistan army, the institution is stronger than the persons who lead it.

Arrival of a new army chief on the scene, with moderate views about India and a desire for improved civil-military comity will not lead to any attitudinal or policy shifts.  Bajwa’s predecessor General Raheel Sharif was viscerally hostile to India.  The Army and ISI’s policy to bleed India through subversion and cross-border terrorism perhaps will continue. The Pakistan army justifies its role as preserver of Pakistan’s integrity and defender of the country from the perceived threat of India. If India is not viewed as a threat, it weakens the raison de’tre of the Army’s dominant role.

Earlier Nawaz Sharif had selected General Parvez Musharraf in 1998 only to be ousted by him a year later. He also did not enjoy a good rapport with General Raheel Sharif whom he had selected in 2013. The Pakistan army continues to believe that with its nuclear shield, it can harass soft India and with its tough army, it can withstand Indian pressure. Christian Fair, Professor at Georgetown University, who has written extensively on the Pakistan Army, has tweeted that the new general is also cut from the same cloth and there would be no difference.

Destabilising India by a thousand cuts remains an obsessive motive of the Pakistan army and it is not going to change soon. The world knows, and many in Pakistan also realise, that the fear of existential threat from India is a phoney threat intended to bolster the army’s position as the protector of the country’s integrity. Though there may be some differences among the constituents of the Pakistan establishment ~ the political, military and bureaucratic elite ~ they share a deeply adversarial perception of India.  This reality has to be constantly borne in mind.