army chief controversy

Why one of the messiest chapters in Indian army history refuses to be closed

The defence ministry continues to back the current Army Chief, even though it means questioning the role of one of his predecessors, now a sitting minister.

It is unprecedented in the annals of post-Independence India for a serving Army Chief to file an affidavit in the Supreme Court accusing a predecessor – or a serving minister – of impropriety.

In this case, it happens to be a predecessor and a serving minister.

Chief of Army Staff General Dalbir Singh Suhag has accused Minister of State for External Affairs General (retired) VK Singh, of trying to stall his promotion “with mysterious design, malafide intent and to arbitrarily punish” him for “extraneous reasons”, the Indian Express reported.

In an affidavit submitted in his personal capacity to the Supreme Court, Suhag has said that in 2012 he “was sought to be victimised by the then COAS” [VK Singh] “with the sole purpose of denying [him] promotion to the appointment of Army Commander”.

The controversy is a continuation of one of the messiest chapters in the history of the Indian army when VK Singh, as the Chief of Army Staff, raised the issue of his date of birth and took the United Progressive Alliance government to court.

More than six years ago, when VK Singh took over as the army chief, he had staked his claim to an additional year in office on the grounds that he was born in 1951 and not 1950, as stated in army’s official records. His contention was that throughout his career he had followed 1951 as his year of birth, but for a mistake in an entry before he joined National Defence Academy that led to a year being shaved off from his service.

Ordinarily, such a move should have been resolved when VK Singh accepted 1950 as his year of birth, just before his promotion as an Army Commander. However, while Singh accepted the year under protest, he had never reconciled to the fact and finally went to the Supreme Court, challenging the government’s position.

But at stake was not just VK Singh’s own tenure but the entire succession plan of the Indian Army, usually offered to the senior-most army commander. In this case, had the government accepted VK Singh’s claim, he would have served three years as the Army Chief, and his successor, Gen Bikram Singh would have retired without getting the top job. In such a scenario, perhaps, VK Singh would have also retired a year later than he did and possibly would not have sought a career in politics. But that was not to be.

The succession war

Had VK Singh served for an extra year, it would have impacted not just Bikram Singh, but also Suhag. Those opposed to VK Singh argue that he deliberately filed Discipline and Vigilance ban on Suhag to nix his chances as a future Army Chief.

In January 2012, a military intelligence official, Major T Ravi Kumar wrote to the Dimapur-based 3 Corps commander, Lt Gen Suhag, asking him to inquire into allegations of a fake encounter and dacoity by his colleagues of the 3 Corps Intelligence and Surveillance Unit. A copy of the letter was also marked to Lt Gen Bikram Singh, then the Eastern Army Commander and then army chief, Gen VK Singh.

Gen VK Singh forwarded the letter to Lt Gen Bikram Singh as well as Lt Gen Suhag asking them to conduct an inquiry into these allegations. It was this letter that sparked off a flurry of events that has led to the Indian Army’s most embarrassing moment, as top army Generals fight amongst themselves, through media leaks and court cases.

During his tenure as the Eastern Army Commander, Lt Gen Bikram Singh ordered a Court of Inquiry conducted by Brigadier A Bhuyan. While Bhuyan was supposed to inquire into the allegations of fake encounters and dacoity by the officers and men of Suhag’s Unit, the role of Suhag himself was not inquired into. VK Singh felt that a much senior officer should have been asked to conduct the inquiry since Lt Gen Suhag was two rungs higher than Brigadier Bhuyan. It was suspected that Suhag protected the unit he commanded from the court of inquiry.

The matter would have been laid to rest but VK Singh issued a show cause notice to Suhag. As per procedure, when a notice is issued to a serving officer, a ban is placed on the officer’s promotion, till the allegations have been cleared up satisfactorily.

Ideally, this would have been a routine procedure, except for a few critical details. VK Singh had already lost his case in the Supreme Court for an extension of his service and he was days away from his retirement. Bikram Singh was the Army Chief-designate and Suhag was waiting to take up his position as the Eastern Army Commander. A prolonged ban at this stage would have ensured that Suhag would never become the army chief, impacting the succession plan forever.

The officer, who was ideally poised to be considered for promotion during the ban on Suhag was Lt Gen Ravi Dastane. Had he been considered for the Eastern Army Commander’s post, he would be in position to become the army chief after Bikram Singh. In fact, the post of the Eastern Army Commander was kept vacant till Bikram Singh took over. Clearly, the intention was to ensure that Suhag was cleared of the ban, so that he could take over Eastern Command and be eligible for the top job. The succession war had clearly become a murky one, unprecedented in the history of the Indian Army.

And sure enough, on taking over as the chief, Bikram Singh lifted the ban on Suhag.

Court battles

Meanwhile, even though VK Singh lost the case for his extension in the Supreme Court, Dastane filed a petition seeking promotion to the rank of an army commander. His argument was simple. When the promotion ban was placed on Suhag, Dastane was the senior-most officer who should have been automatically considered for promotion. Since that was not done, he missed out his chance to contend for the Army Chief’s post.

There was a case of conflict of interest in lifting the ban on Suhag’s appointment, Dastane also argued in his petition. Bikram Singh as the Eastern Army Commander, Dastane contended, was also responsible for the actions of Suhag who was serving under him, therefore creating a conflict of interest.

The case went to court, but in July 2014, a Supreme Court bench headed by Justice TS Thakur refused to stay Suhag’s appointment as the next Army Chief.

Meanwhile, Dastane, the petitioner, retired from military service, but continued to fight the case leading to a prolonged court battle. Even though the government had changed and VK Singh had been appointed as a Minister of State, the Ministry of Defence filed an affidavit in the same case, virtually blaming him for the mess.

What surprised everyone was that such an affidavit had been allowed to go through, even though it would embarrass a sitting union minister.

The current affidavit, ostensibly filed by the current army chief in his “personal capacity” has caused further embarrassment to VK Singh. The current affidavit, even though filed in the Army Chief’s “personal capacity” was informally cleared by the defence ministry, say officials in Army Headquarters. This sends out a message that the ministry will continue to back the current Army Chief, even if it means questioning the role of a sitting Minister of State.

Those close to VK Singh allege that this is being done deliberately at the behest of “arm dealers and corrupt bureaucrats” who continue to dominate the workings of the defence ministry. This had also been their allegation as the reason why VK Singh was denied the extra year – parochial considerations were insinuated as a possible motivation as then chief Gen JJ Singh, it was alleged, had wanted to ensure that Bikram Singh and Suhag went on to get the top job, which would not have been possible otherwise.

But what is beyond dispute is that this episode has deeply politicised the army that is sworn to remain apolitical. The damage done to the institution is irreversible.

We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
Sponsored Content BY 

What hospitals can do to drive entrepreneurship and enhance patient experience

Hospitals can perform better by partnering with entrepreneurs and encouraging a culture of intrapreneurship focused on customer centricity.

At the Emory University Hospital in Atlanta, visitors don’t have to worry about navigating their way across the complex hospital premises. All they need to do is download wayfinding tools from the installed digital signage onto their smartphone and get step by step directions. Other hospitals have digital signage in surgical waiting rooms that share surgery updates with the anxious families waiting outside, or offer general information to visitors in waiting rooms. Many others use digital registration tools to reduce check-in time or have Smart TVs in patient rooms that serve educational and anxiety alleviating content.

Most of these tech enabled solutions have emerged as hospitals look for better ways to enhance patient experience – one of the top criteria in evaluating hospital performance. Patient experience accounts for 25% of a hospital’s Value-Based Purchasing (VBP) score as per the US government’s Centres for Medicare and Mediaid Services (CMS) programme. As a Mckinsey report says, hospitals need to break down a patient’s journey into various aspects, clinical and non-clinical, and seek ways of improving every touch point in the journey. As hospitals also need to focus on delivering quality healthcare, they are increasingly collaborating with entrepreneurs who offer such patient centric solutions or encouraging innovative intrapreneurship within the organization.

At the Hospital Leadership Summit hosted by Abbott, some of the speakers from diverse industry backgrounds brought up the role of entrepreneurship in order to deliver on patient experience.

Getting the best from collaborations

Speakers such as Dr Naresh Trehan, Chairman and Managing Director - Medanta Hospitals, and Meena Ganesh, CEO and MD - Portea Medical, who spoke at the panel discussion on “Are we fit for the world of new consumers?”, highlighted the importance of collaborating with entrepreneurs to fill the gaps in the patient experience eco system. As Dr Trehan says, “As healthcare service providers we are too steeped in our own work. So even though we may realize there are gaps in customer experience delivery, we don’t want to get distracted from our core job, which is healthcare delivery. We would rather leave the job of filling those gaps to an outsider who can do it well.”

Meena Ganesh shares a similar view when she says that entrepreneurs offer an outsider’s fresh perspective on the existing gaps in healthcare. They are therefore better equipped to offer disruptive technology solutions that put the customer right at the center. Her own venture, Portea Medical, was born out of a need in the hitherto unaddressed area of patient experience – quality home care.

There are enough examples of hospitals that have gained significantly by partnering with or investing in such ventures. For example, the Children’s Medical Centre in Dallas actively invests in tech startups to offer better care to its patients. One such startup produces sensors smaller than a grain of sand, that can be embedded in pills to alert caregivers if a medication has been taken or not. Another app delivers care givers at customers’ door step for check-ups. Providence St Joseph’s Health, that has medical centres across the U.S., has invested in a range of startups that address different patient needs – from patient feedback and wearable monitoring devices to remote video interpretation and surgical blood loss monitoring. UNC Hospital in North Carolina uses a change management platform developed by a startup in order to improve patient experience at its Emergency and Dermatology departments. The platform essentially comes with a friendly and non-intrusive way to gather patient feedback.

When intrapreneurship can lead to patient centric innovation

Hospitals can also encourage a culture of intrapreneurship within the organization. According to Meena Ganesh, this would mean building a ‘listening organization’ because as she says, listening and being open to new ideas leads to innovation. Santosh Desai, MD& CEO - Future Brands Ltd, who was also part of the panel discussion, feels that most innovations are a result of looking at “large cultural shifts, outside the frame of narrow business”. So hospitals will need to encourage enterprising professionals in the organization to observe behavior trends as part of the ideation process. Also, as Dr Ram Narain, Executive Director, Kokilaben Dhirubhai Ambani Hospital, points out, they will need to tell the employees who have the potential to drive innovative initiatives, “Do not fail, but if you fail, we still back you.” Innovative companies such as Google actively follow this practice, allowing employees to pick projects they are passionate about and work on them to deliver fresh solutions.

Realizing the need to encourage new ideas among employees to enhance patient experience, many healthcare enterprises are instituting innovative strategies. Henry Ford System, for example, began a system of rewarding great employee ideas. One internal contest was around clinical applications for wearable technology. The incentive was particularly attractive – a cash prize of $ 10,000 to the winners. Not surprisingly, the employees came up with some very innovative ideas that included: a system to record mobility of acute care patients through wearable trackers, health reminder system for elderly patients and mobile game interface with activity trackers to encourage children towards exercising. The employees admitted later that the exercise was so interesting that they would have participated in it even without a cash prize incentive.

Another example is Penn Medicine in Philadelphia which launched an ‘innovation tournament’ across the organization as part of its efforts to improve patient care. Participants worked with professors from Wharton Business School to prepare for the ideas challenge. More than 1,750 ideas were submitted by 1,400 participants, out of which 10 were selected. The focus was on getting ideas around the front end and some of the submitted ideas included:

  • Check-out management: Exclusive waiting rooms with TV, Internet and other facilities for patients waiting to be discharged so as to reduce space congestion and make their waiting time more comfortable.
  • Space for emotional privacy: An exclusive and friendly space for individuals and families to mourn the loss of dear ones in private.
  • Online patient organizer: A web based app that helps first time patients prepare better for their appointment by providing check lists for documents, medicines, etc to be carried and giving information regarding the hospital navigation, the consulting doctor etc.
  • Help for non-English speakers: Iconography cards to help non-English speaking patients express themselves and seek help in case of emergencies or other situations.

As Arlen Meyers, MD, President and CEO of the Society of Physician Entrepreneurs, says in a report, although many good ideas come from the front line, physicians must also be encouraged to think innovatively about patient experience. An academic study also builds a strong case to encourage intrapreneurship among nurses. Given they comprise a large part of the front-line staff for healthcare delivery, nurses should also be given the freedom to create and design innovative systems for improving patient experience.

According to a Harvard Business Review article quoted in a university study, employees who have the potential to be intrapreneurs, show some marked characteristics. These include a sense of ownership, perseverance, emotional intelligence and the ability to look at the big picture along with the desire, and ideas, to improve it. But trust and support of the management is essential to bringing out and taking the ideas forward.

Creating an environment conducive to innovation is the first step to bringing about innovation-driven outcomes. These were just some of the insights on healthcare management gleaned from the Hospital Leadership Summit hosted by Abbott. In over 150 countries, Abbott, which is among the top 100 global innovator companies, is working with hospitals and healthcare professionals to improve the quality of health services.

To read more content on best practices for hospital leaders, visit Abbott’s Bringing Health to Life portal here.

This article was produced on behalf of Abbott by the Scroll.in marketing team and not by the Scroll.in editorial staff.