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Army jumps gun on chief

New Delhi, May 14: In a lapse of protocol, the army has named its vice-chief, Lt General Dalbir Singh Suhag, as the chief of army staff-designate before the government formally announced the appointment.

The Centre today announced that the vice-chief of army staff, Lt General Dalbir Singh Suhag, will take over as the next chief of army staff after incumbent General Bikram Singh retires on July 31.

The defence ministry media release announcing the appointment was issued this morning, 12 hours after the army headquarters put out a statement headlined “COAS-designate” and profiling the officer.

The brief on officers holding important posts almost always follows the formal announcement of the appointment by the government, in this case the defence ministry.

Lt General Suhag’s appointment had run into a controversy in the run-up to his elevation with the Opposition BJP alleging the outgoing UPA-II government was acting in “undue haste”.

Now, even at the moment of the appointment, there is a breach of protocol. Last evening, army sources, asked why the announcement had not yet been formally made, said “that is up to the ministry”. A ministry official said: “The army cannot announce it, we have to.”

It cannot be easily determined if the breach of protocol resulted from the over-enthusiasm in the army headquarters or because of the tardiness in the ministry.

The government had decided on Lt General Dalbir Singh — as the vice-chief likes to be called — nearly a month back. But defence minister A.K. Antony referred the decision to the Election Commission.

On Monday, the commission told the ministry that it had no comment to make on administrative decisions in the armed forces.

The government still did not announce the appointment. That came only after the army itself announced it on Tuesday evening.

The decision on appointments of service chiefs and senior officials in the government is recommended by the relevant ministry but approved by the cabinet committee on appointments headed by the Prime Minister.

The defence ministry took a full 50 days before confirming Admiral Robin Dhowan as the chief of naval staff after Admiral D.K. Joshi took premature retirement. Admiral Dhowan’s appointment was followed by the then western navy chief, Vice Admiral Shekhar Sinha, seeking premature retirement after he was superseded.

The announcement that Lt General Dalbir Singh will be the next chief has been made 11 weeks before General Bikram Singh is scheduled to retire. A services’ chief-designate is usually announced two to three months before the scheduled date of retirement of the incumbent.

The BJP had demanded that the decision should vest with the next government as the Manmohan Singh government was just two days away from demitting office. On promotion to the rank of general, Dalbir Singh is scheduled to serve as the army chief till December 2016.