NEW DELHI: Eastern Army commander Lt-General Bikram Singh remains the clear front-runner to become the next chief of the 1.13-million strong force. But amid mounting speculation that Army chief Gen V K Singh will resign before his tenure ends on May 31, two other Army commanders, Lt-Generals Shankar Ghosh (Western) and V K Ahluwalia (Central), are also in the reckoning for the coveted post.
While Lt-Gen Bikram Singh of the Sikh Light Infantry passed out from the Indian Military Academy in March, 1972, Lt-Gens Ghosh and Ahluwalia are senior to him, having being commissioned in November, 1971.
The latter two would retire as per schedule, if Gen V K Singh decides to carry on till May 31. While Lt-Gens retire at 60, a military chief can serve for three years or upto the age of 62, whichever is earlier.
But what could queer the pitch for Lt-Gen Ghosh (Guards Regiment) is a question mark over his medical category since he is suffering from "osteoarthritis of the right hip joint".
The second in the line of seniority, Lt-Gen Ahluwalia (Artillery), can only be considered for the top job, if Gen V K Singh decides to resign in February since the former is slated to retire on February 29.
A top government source said the chapter on Gen Singh's tenure was "finally over", irrespective of whether he decides to resign or completes his tenure. The government is looking ahead and readying succession plan.
"All options are being kept open...but it's not mandatory for the government to pick the seniormost Army commander if Gen V K Singh suddenly decides to put in his papers," said government sources on Saturday. This can mean that Lt-Gen Bikram Singh in all probability will be the next Army chief even if Gen V K Singh decides to hang his boots earlier than scheduled.
Right since the Independence, successive governments have been wary of rocking the seniority boat while appointing military chiefs. The supersession of Lt-Gen S K Sinha by Indira Gandhi to appoint Gen A S Vaidya as the Army chief in the early 1980s has been one of the rare exceptions.
As earlier reported by TOI, Gen V K Singh does not seem to be in favour of Lt-Gen Bikram Singh succeeding him since he believes his date of birth was not corrected despite his repeated attempts since former chiefs like Gens J J Singh and Deepak Kapoor allegedly wanted to fix the succession chain in favour of the present Eastern Army commander.
The Army chief himself spent Saturday closeted with his lawyers and advisers after returning to the Capital in the morning. He had left for Jaipur on Friday afternoon on an official trip to the South-Western Army Command a couple of hours after losing his legal battle in the Supreme Court to get his date of birth changed from 'May 10, 1950' to 'May 10, 1951'.
Defence minister A K Antony and Gen V K Singh are both slated to go abroad on Monday on official tours. While Antony heads for a two-day visit to Saudi Arabia, Gen Singh will leave for the UK on a four-day tour. The two have generally avoided each other since the beginning of February. The wide-spread feeling in both military and civilian quarters in South Block is that if the Army chief decides to continue in office, he will be reduced to "a lame-duck chief" due to the "huge trust deficit" between him and Antony.