The suspense is killing. With only a few hours left for Narendra Modi and his cabinet to take oath on Monday, the continued absence of information on the next Defence Minister of India is preying on the minds of a set of officers in the Army headquarters in South Block.
Several officers close to the present Army chief General Bikram Singh and vice chief Lt Gen Dalbir Singh Suhag are worried over the possibility of former Army chief and their bête noire General V K Singh becoming India’s next Defence Minister.
The absence of love between the two Singhs – one a Thakur and the other a Sikh — is common knowledge and both are generally presumed to have axes to grind. The same is true between General V K Singh and Suhag.
The former army chief continues to have strong feelings about being denied an additional 10 months in office, because of a perceived conspiracy by a coterie close to his predecessors generals, J J Singh and Deepak Kapoor, and his successor General Bikram Singh.
He also thinks Suhag is a direct beneficiary of that conspiracy, executed by what he calls the ‘Chandigarh Club’ comprising several serving and former bureaucrats, diplomats and armed forces officers.
The UPA government hurriedly naming Suhag as the next chief two-and-a-half months before incumbent General Bikram Singh retires on July 31 and in the last days of power has left a question of legitimacy on the decision itself. Should the outgoing Manmohan Singh government have gone out of its way to name Suhag as the successor to Bikram Singh just three days before it was voted out in the just-concluded parliamentary polls? There is no question this decision has been perceived to be rushed or in haste.
The direct fall out of the multi-level running feuds is that the army organisation is split vertically between those in favour of General V K Singh and those opposed to him.
When V K Singh was the chief, officers close to him wielded power. But before and after him, the same officers found themselves in trouble. Take the case of former DGMO Lt Gen A K Chaudhary, who was shunted out to an insignificant ‘staff’ posting as head of the static Bengal Area after he was the one questioned by then Defence Secretary Shashi Kant Sharma over the sudden movement of two Army units towards the national capital in mid-January 2012. Or for that matter Colonel Hunny Bakshi, an Intelligence Corps officer who headed the controversial Technical Services Division (TSD). Both officers, seen as V K Singh’s men, were shunted out of the Army HQ after Bikram Singh took over as chief.
The latest is a Lieutenant Colonel — an ex-TSD hand — whose request for compassionate posting has not been met for two years now. He has recently sent SMSes to the Army top brass threatening to commit suicide and blaming General Bikram Singh for the harassment being meted out to him.
Now, with the tide turning and General V K Singh’s name being suggested as the likely Defence Minister, officers in the Army headquarters, who are close to both Bikram Singh and Suhag are fretting and sweating over the question of their prospects in a Defence Ministry under General V K Singh.
While some of the brass insist that putting the General V K Singh in the defence ministry would be a mistake because of the institutional resistance that could result in South Block, other observers point to the stunning victory that the former army chief managed in his constituency, Ghaziabad, with a margin said to be second only to Prime Minister designate Narendra Modi. This, they say, could make General V K Singh’s entry onto South Block inevitable.
General V K Singh in the ministry could choose to overturn some of the UPA government’s decision with respect to the Army, beginning with bringing up the charges Suhag has faced in the past.
V K Singh had sought a CBI probe in the allegations of kickbacks in the purchase of parachutes by the Special Frontier Force, a till-now secret militia of Tibetans, when Suhag, as a Major General, was its chief.
Singh had also later imposed a Discipline and Vigilance (DV) ban on his promotion as Army commander in May 2012 in connection with illegal killings on which he has been charged with inaction over complaints and a botched up intelligence unit raid due to “command” failure.
And it may not be only Suhag, who has reason to worry.