Extending Influence

The strange case of the army chief’s one month extension

Vipin Kumar/Hindustan Times
31 May, 2024

On 26 May, just four days before he was to retire, army chief General Manoj Pande was given an extension in service by the Narendra Modi government. Strangely, his tenure was extended only for a month, until 30 June. This sudden announcement was made in the middle of the sixth phase of the general elections, with results set to be declared on 4 June. The official press release gave no reason for the extension, but raised various suspicions about the intent of such a move.

In the absence of a formal reason, some reports have suggested that the Modi government was leaving the decision to whoever forms the next union government. That theory does not hold water since the Modi administration appointed a new navy chief in April—on the first day of polling in the general elections. The day after Pande’s extension, it also approved the extension in service of Samir V Kamat, the secretary of the Department of Defence Research and Development and the Chairman of the Defence Research and Development Organisation, for a period of one year, up to 31 May 2025.

On the same day, the Modi government also undertook a major bureaucratic reshuffle involving fresh appointments and lateral shifts at the secretary level. While the Model Code of Conduct is in force, transfers of this kind are usually done when there is a complaint by elections observers or the opposition that officers are not discharging their duties fairly. The Modi government appointed senior Indian Administrative Service officer Pradip Kumar Tripathi as the secretary to the anti-corruption authority, Lokpal, and also initiated the Additional Secretary empanelment of 1999 batch of IAS officers. These unusual and irregular decisions—which must have the formal approval of the election commission—also suggest that the outgoing Modi government may shortly come up with another list of appointment to the post of Additional Secretary before the formation of a new government. Many see it as the signs of a man confident of returning to power, who is doing routine work. But it will have an impact on the manning of constitutional bodies such as the Lokpal and the officials selected as bureaucratic heads of departments, in case Modi is no longer the prime minister. His influence will extend through his chosen officials, as we have witnessed in the case of the election commission during the recent polls.  

Another suggestion from some quarters was that Pande’s short extension is an attempt to gain some time to extend the pool of candidates or to allow for the government to make a deep selection, instead of going by the settled practice of selection according to seniority. But no one from the current set retires before 30 June, whereby the pool for selection would remain the same. The army vice-chief lieutenant general Upendra Dwivedi and southern army commander lieutenant general AK Singh would retire that day and would have not been typically eligible for promotion. However, the Modi government set a new precedent in 2019 by appointing Air Chief Marshal RKS Bhaduria as the chief of the Indian Air Force on the day of his retirement. Bhaduria, who headed the Rafale negotiating team, recently joined the BJP and has campaigned for the party during the elections. In any case, the Modi government has played footloose with rules for appointment of top military officers and even a retired three-star officer, Anil Chauhan, was brought back into service after 16 months in muftis as the Chief of Defence Staff.