New Delhi: General Bikram Singh, the 25th Chief of the Indian Army, assumed office today and wasted no time in establishing that he wants to distance himself from his controversial predecessor and his legacy. "You drive a car looking through the wind-screen and not looking at the rear view mirror. My thrust is what has happened in the past has to be left behind," he said, after reviewing the guard of honour.
A group that includes retired army officers had moved court alleging that Sikh officers and groups had lobbied successfully for the selection of General Singh as the new army chief. The Supreme Court rejected that petition. General Bikram Singh combated those allegations with "Let us continue to remain a secular force, let us continue to be an apolitical force and let us continue to do our job as it is supposed to be done."
General Bikram Singh, who served as the army spokesperson during the Kargil War, inherits an army that has watched its critical relationship with the government slip to a new low. His predecessor, General VK Singh, who retired on Thursday, became the first serving chief to take the government to court. General VK Singh wanted the government to accept that he is a year younger than his records reflect - this would have made him eligible for another year in office. He withdrew his case in the Supreme Court after judges indicated he was unlikely to win.
MPs who are Rajputs, like General VK Singh, had approached the PM and urged that the age dispute be settled in his favour. The intervention was heavily criticized as an attempt to use religion or community to bolster the case of an individual officer of the forces. Critics had accused General VK Singh of showing preferential treatment to Rajput officers and overstepping the line with his regimental affinities.
That was followed by a leak of his confidential letter to the Prime Minister, warning of serious deficiencies in the army's equipment. There was also a startling disclosure made by the retired army chief in an interview that he was offered a bribe to clear sub-standard trucks for the army. And then just days before he retired, VK Singh took action that could block the path of Lt General Dalbir Singh Suhag, whose current seniority positions him to take over as army chief in 2014.
General Bikram Singh, who will have tenure of 27 months, faces many challenges. But perhaps the most critical of these will be the modernization of the army.
With senior officers stressing the need to be ready for a two-front war - the possibility of having to engage Pakistan and China at the same time - General Bikram Singh will need to push a sluggish bureaucracy. He'll also have to wade through an acquisition process that's loaded with red tape and allegations of corruption against contractors, some of which are often planted by interested parties, but cause mammoth delays in purchasing guns, helicopters and other urgently-needed resources.