Is Army chief’s month-long extension much ado about nothing?

Manoj Pande should have retired on 31 May but was given an unusual one-month extension by the cabinet appointments committee on 26 May

General Manoj Pande has been Army chief since April 2022 (photo: @neeraj_rajput/X)
General Manoj Pande has been Army chief since April 2022 (photo: @neeraj_rajput/X)

A.J. Prabal

General Manoj Pande, the Army chief since April 2022, was due to retire on Friday, 31 May 2024. Preparations within the Army were on for his farewell, and induction of vice-chief of Army staff lieutenant-general Upendra Dwivedi. As recently as 24 May, Pande was taking the salute at the passing out parade of the National Defence Academy as chief guest, and receiving post-retirement wishes. So what explains the sudden extension?

The answer, given informally by anonymous sources in the defence ministry, was the model code of conduct (MCC) being in force for the ongoing Lok Sabha elections. The reply failed to convince anyone, because the government had actually announced the appointment of admiral Dinesh Kumar Tripathi as the new chief of naval staff as the first phase of polling was going on.

The new chief took over on 1 May, during the election. In any case, the Election Commission’s MCC does not affect the transfer of officials unconnected with election duty, and has no bearing on the armed forces. The explanation merely served to stoke the controversy and made people ask, "What is the government up to?"

Also, the government knew for the last two years, since the day Pande took over as army chief, the day when he would retire. So what explains the sudden decision which has done a great disservice to the Army chief, who finds himself at the centre of a totally unnecessary public controversy?

Army veterans are dismayed because such an extension is unusual and has been granted after 53 years. The last time this happened was when then Army chief General Sam Manekshaw and his successor General Gopal Gurunath Bewoor were each granted year-long extensions after the Bangladesh liberation war of 1971.

They are also dismayed because it has created uncertainty about the next Army chief. If the government had decided against appointing Dwivedi as the next chief, it could have made that announcement. If the cabinet appointments committee could meet on 26 May to decide on a month’s extension, it could as well have appointed the next chief of its choice the same day, many have pointed out.

The one-month extension until 30 June has, in fact, cast a cloud on the succession as the next two senior-most officers, Dwivedi and Lt-Gen. Ajai Kumar Singh, also retire on 30 June. The government, however, has always had the last word and has not always conformed to the principle of seniority.

Then vice-chief Lt Gen. S.K. Sinha had famously resigned after being superseded in 1984. During the Modi years, air chief marshal R.K.S. Bhadauria took over as Indian Air Force chief on the last day of service, 30 September 2019, and served for two years. The principle of seniority was once again ignored in the appointment of admirals Robin Dhowan and Karambir Singh as Navy chiefs in 2014 and 2019, respectively.

Similarly, in December 2016, two senior Army officers were overlooked while appointing then Lt Gen. Bipin Rawat as Army chief. The present chief of defence services (CDS) Gen. Anil Chauhan was brought back from retirement to don the uniform again.

If all three officers — Pande, Dwivedi, and Singh — are set to superannuate on 30 June, who will the government pick as the new Army chief? The next in line would be Northern Command chief Lt Gen. M.V. Suchindra Kumar, followed by Central Command chief Lt Gen. N.S. Raja Subramani, and Integrated Defence Staff chief Lt Gen. J.P. Mathew (December 1985 batch).

"If the seniority principle does not apply here, it could be anybody's game, depending on the officer's reach and leaning. There is no question of merit here as all are top officers who have reached their levels through talent and hard work," a senior South Block official was quoted as saying by a defence correspondent.

Two other theories are also doing the rounds. One holds that the Army chief himself may have sought the extension, which, however, appears unconvincing and untenable. A more plausible theory is that Pande had ordered a review of the Agniveer scheme and the extension may have been granted to enable him to finalise the recommendation. This, too, is deemed a weak explanation because Dwivedi would have ensured continuity after his elevation.

Pande, who was born in Nagpur, and is the first from the engineering services to become Army chief, courted controversy earlier this month while addressing a seminar in New Delhi on ‘Historical Patterns of Indian Strategic Culture. He spoke at length on ‘Project Uddhav’ initiated by the Indian Army in 2023, which has explored the epic battles of the Mahabharata and the strategic brilliance of the Mauryas, Marathas and Guptas, which shaped India’s rich military heritage, he said.

Given the sensitive nature of the subject, few veterans are willing to speak on record, while not hiding their dismay. The extension is unfortunate and should have been avoided, said one. A former naval chief icily posted that it was not mandatory for the Army chief to accept the extension. The extension has also triggered wild conspiracy theories that the government may have wanted a 'reliable' Army chief to deal with post-poll scenarios.

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