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V.K. Singh makes final bid to derail Army succession
VISHAL THAPAR  New Delhi | 19th Apr 2014

he first and the loudest to complain against news of the outgoing Manmohan Singh government initiating the process to select a new Army chief was General V.K. Singh, now transitioning to full-time politics as a BJP Lok Sabha contestant.

The protest was strange, particularly coming from a former Army chief himself. The long-established Indian tradition in appointing service chiefs is about respecting seniority, irrespective of which government is in power. Supersessions are a rare exception. In fact, Gen V.K. Singh himself is a beneficiary of this tradition. He was made Army chief on 1 April 2010, despite grave reservations expressed on record by his predecessor, Gen Deepak Kapoor, whose apprehensions were borne out by V.K. Singh's tumultuous and very controversial tenure.

Now, after the calm of V.K. Singh's successor Gen Bikram Singh's tenure, which is due to end in July, the succession tumult is returning to haunt the Army.

The current Vice-Chief, Lt Gen Dalbir Singh Suhag, will be the senior-most Army officer when Bikram Singh retires, and by dint of seniority and tradition, is the front-runner for Army chief, no matter which government is selecting a chief. And unlike the recent case of the Navy, where the senior-most Vice-Admiral, Shekhar Sinha was overlooked on grounds of "moral responsibility" following a spate of accidents under his command, there's no such obstacle in Suhag's path.

General V.K. Singh's objections would, thus, appear curious, unless seen in context. In case Suhag is discredited as a UPA favourite or otherwise ruled out, the next-in-line for appointment as chief is the Southern Army Commander, Lt Gen Ashok Singh, who is related to V.K. Singh through marriage. V.K. Singh's daughter is married to Ashok Singh's son.

While in office, Gen V.K. Singh targeted both Bikram Singh and Suhag with a ferocity which stunned even the biggest cynics in the Army. V.K. Singh not just disapproved of both Bikram and Suhag, but his tenure coincided with determined campaigns to derail the careers of both these officers who were in line to succeed him.

Curiously, Ashok Singh would be the beneficiary if either Bikram or Suhag's careers were aborted.

Training his guns first at Bikram, V.K. Singh had openly slammed the succession chain, which his supporters claimed had been rigged to put Sikhs as Army chiefs (incidentally, Suhag is not a Sikh). He pointed fingers at former Army chief, Gen J.J. Singh, incidentally the first Sikh Army chief, for having patronised a communal succession chain, also insinuating that this had the blessings of the Sikh Prime Minister. This charge was strongly denied by Gen J.J. Singh, who, ironically put V.K. Singh in the succession chain by promoting him Lt Gen in 2006. The baseline for an officer to come in contention for the post of Army chief is promotion to the rank of Lt General. Thereafter, how far an officer progresses is a factor of his age relative to those of his peers. There is no deep selection after promotion to 3-star rank (Lt General). Bikram Singh was promoted Lt General during the tenure of General Deepak Kapoor, who was not known to see eye-to-eye with J.J. Singh.

It was even loudly alleged by V.K. Singh's supporters that Bikram Singh was related to the Prime Minister through his wife. This was factually incorrect.

The campaign against Bikram Singh was given a distinctly communal overtone, but Bikram Singh was to face even more vicious charges. It was alleged, first by whisper and innuendo and then through a PIL, that he faked an encounter in Kashmir. The PIL was filed in the J&K High Court by an unknown NGO, which was later probed for its sources of funding which were allegedly linked to a rogue unit in Military Intelligence.

Bikram Singh's detractors even made an issue of his Muslim daughter-in-law, by wrongly insinuating that she was a Pakistani.

Had Bikram Singh not made it as Army chief, the next-in-line to succeed V.K. Singh would have been Lt Gen K.T. Parnaik, whose retirement schedule would have put V.K. Singh kin, Lt Gen Ashok Singh as the frontrunner after him.

Bikram Singh survived the campaign against him, unprecedented in the Indian Army for its viciousness and communal colour. It was then that Lt Gen Dalbir Suhag came in the line of fire.

In March 2012, on the day the then Chinese President Hu Jintao was in New Delhi for the BRICS Summit, Gen V.K. Singh asked the CBI to probe Dalbir Suhag for alleged corruption in the procurement of parachutes during his tenure as Inspector General in the China-specific special force, the SFF. India has always denied to the Chinese the existence of this force, and ironically, the cover was blown off this secret force by V.K. Singh. This organisation was all over the headlines the day Hu Jintao was in town. The CBI threw out this complaint as frivolous.

V.K. Singh reserved his frontal assault on Dalbir Singh Suhag for the last week of his tenure. On the basis of a complaint of theft of a mobile during a low-level Military Intelligence raid on a suspected ULFA hideout led by a female captain in Jorhat in late 2011, V.K. Singh put Dalbir Singh on a promotion ban (Discipline & Vigilance ban) without first subjecting him to an inquiry. Dalbir, then commander of 3 Corps, was accused of lapse of command. Despite approval by the Appointments Committee of the Cabinet of his promotion to the rank of Army Commander, which would put him in the line of succession, he was rendered ineligible by this unexpected ban by V.K. Singh. This ban was revoked by General Bikram Singh soon after taking over as chief.

No prizes for guessing who the immediate beneficiary of the relegation of Dalbir Singh Suhag would have been: Lt Gen Ashok Singh.

An Army court of inquiry ultimately ended with indicting a havaldar for stealing a mobile during the Jorhat raid, on the basis of which V.K. Singh wanted to unsettle the chain of succession to the post of Army chief.

Another interesting nugget on the V.K. Singh-Ashok Singh bonding was the troop movement to the outskirts of Delhi in January 2012 which "spooked" the UPA government and left it suspecting the intention of the Army chief at the height of his confrontation with the government over his age. A regiment of armoured vehicles from the Hisar-based 33 Armoured Division was moved to Delhi's periphery, causing much consternation and making the Defence Secretary summon the DG Military Operations to explain the movement. This unit was under 1 Corps, which was then commanded by Lt Gen Ashok Singh. V.K. Singh's headquarters dismissed this as a routine exercise. A bit curiously, neither the South-Western Army Commander (to which 1 Corps reports) nor the Western Army Commander (under whose command the Delhi Area falls) was aware of this movement when the matter was brought to their notice by intelligence agencies.

Gen V.K. Singh's renewed attack on Dalbir Singh comes in the final stages of the Defence Ministry processing the succession after Gen Bikram Singh. V.K. Singh has reiterated his severe reservations on Dalbir Singh, a soldier of humble origins, who is now being painted by some as a UPA general.

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