Lt. Gen. Joginder Jaswant Singh has no doubt survived some anxious moments over the past year, during which he has beein in a close race for the post of the next army chief against his regimental officer and course mate, Lt. Gen. Hari Prasad. In the event, Hari Prasad lost out despite a whisper campaign on his behalf that did the rounds preceding the announcemnt of the replacement for the outgoing chief - that Hari Prasad, with more stints in Kashmir than JJ Singh, would be the more deserving candidate. The rumour mongers apparently forgot that that Gen. Vij, the present chief, has no background of command in Kashmir.
If the last government had not demitted office with a resounding loss at the hustings, the chief could well have been the now-retired Lt Gen 'Shammi' Mehta - who roused the ire of Mr. Deve Gowda for recommending the T 90 tank over the T 72 and Arjun as India's mainstay battle tank into the first two decades of the new century. What he should be remembered for, however, is his war record as the young commander of one of the cavalry pincers headed for the liberation of Dhaka in 1971.
There was also the small matter of a jinx against a Sikh rising to the highest rank in the service, despite the considerable representation of the community in the higher ranks, as also the capabilities of those who in the past reached within a hair's breadth of the top, such as Lt. Gen. Harbaksh Singh and Lt. Gen. Bhagat, VC.
That the government chose to stand by the principle of seniority and appoint JJ Singh does not in any way detract from his credentials for the top job. He earned a purple heart while in command of a brigade in Kashmir. He thereafter did the mandatory stints at South Block in the operations directorate, and during the Kargil War, became a well-received face at press briefings. He exercised his strike corps in maneuvers in a nuclear backdrop during Exercise Purna Vijay, again in full media glare. He is reportedly the brain behind the new war doctrine adopted by the army during the first ever conclave of former army chiefs. He also served a three-year stint as military attaché in Algeria, gaining international experience.
Thus there is much to recommend him; that he outlasted other equally worthy claimants, and that a Sikh officer has made it finally to the top of the reputedly greasy military hierarchy, are irrelevant.
What can we expect from the new chief? There is his 'soft' side chanced upon by the media during a get-acquainted session with him. JJ Singh was seen on national television in an emotional moment recounting an episode from his tenure in the Valley, in which he had let off a newly-wed militant on his promise of reform. This facet of the General has likely fuelled press reports full of the 'hearts and minds' approach in the new army doctrine drawn up while the General was presiding over the army's light-weight training command, the ARTRAC located at Shimla. Hopefully, for the people of Kashmir, he will be able to implement his agenda dictated as much from the heart as from compulsions on the ground.
Those compulsions can be quite tricky. Some pointed questioning by Ajay Shukla, a former colonel and present day star correspondent on Prannoy Roy's team, over the army's downsizing in Kashmir has opened up skepticism about the army's implementation of the Prime Minister's intention to draw down the number of soldiers in Kashmir. Clearly, the hardliners within the armed forces will have to be won over, and as some of JJ Singh's predecessors discovered, that's quite a difficult battle to engage.
Gen V N Sharma was army chief during the early phases of the Kashmiri revolt. His fortuitous contribution preceding the event was in sending in a Muslim general, Zaki, to head the Srinagar corps. Jagmohan recounts how Zaki's reputation was the target of a disinformation campaign directed against his policy of distributing food and milk to people caught up in the army's numerous crackdowns - testifying to the existence of both enlightened and negative forces within the military.
From Gen Rodrigues writings subsequent to retirement, his head and heart too also appear to have been in the right places, with respect to the manner of dealing with the Kashmiri people. However he was debilitated by the sharp cut on his knuckles administered by the Defense Minister Pawar for his off-the-cuff characterization of Pakistan as 'bandicoot', and ventilating that the army too has a legitimate interest in 'good governance'! Gen. Joshi's command coincided with the rise of the Ikhwan and the body-count syndrome. He was also instrumental in raising the Rashtriya Rifles that gained initial notoriety before finally settling down to its task a decade after its induction. Gen. Roy Chaudhary was handicapped from the very beginning in having pipped at the post the Northern Army commander Lt. Gen. Surinder Singh, who in normal course would have succeeded Joshi.
Which brings us to Gen Vij; his signal contribution has been the fence along the Line of Control that has sealed off Kashmir. In this the international configuration of forces post 9/11, and Gen Musharraf's own internal political agenda, have both had an influence.
JJ Singh thus inherits a promising configuration of forces. Declining infiltration, talk of force reduction, ongoing talks with Pakistan on both nuclear and conventional CBMs at official levels, talks at the Foreign Minister level on security CBMs and J&K slated for the month-end and a fresh counter terrorism doctrine predicated on a 'hearts and minds' approach, are few of the heartening factors. The General will have to rely on his negotiation skills to sell the idea that making a distinction between people and the armed insurgents is the sine-qua-non to successful counter insurgency.
Kashmiri insurgents or militants - or 'terrorists' as Gen JJ Singh would have us refer to them - remain Kashmiri and as such are very much fellow Indians; this distinction is lost on the Americans and the Israelis - on whom India has of late been drawing on for ideas on how to tackle terrorism who see their antagonists only as external forces, whereas for India they are partly internal as well. The chances of a people-centered campaign as envisaged by the new army doctrine will be dependent on the outcome of the intellectual tension and power struggle between the two sides within the military - those persuaded by 'hearts and minds' versus the hardliners. For once, the army chief has both the inclination and capability to be on the side of the enlightened. JJ Singh's predecessors arguably could not take this route; to do so would have been premature given the earlier levels of Pakistani proxy war. At the same time, he would do well to remember that he will not have this defense to speak for his record three years down the line.
The Sikh combine - the first turbaned PM and army chief - are likely to succeed where their forebears have failed, not only because the constellation of forces is promising, but also because of the kind of men they are - or appear to be, in their media avatars.