Gen Manoj Pande
India Army Chief of Staff Gen Manoj PandeScreengrab of video

In a rare move, the Appointments Committee of the Cabinet, led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, has granted a rare extension to Army Chief General Manoj Pande, just days before his scheduled retirement on May 31.

This unexpected decision, announced on Sunday, has intensified speculation about the next chief of the world's second-largest army. This is the first such extension in over fifty years since General GG Bewoor received an extension from the Indira Gandhi government in 1973.

The extension for General Pande, until June 30, was confirmed by the defense ministry under relevant army regulations.

The significance of the June 30 date lies in the fact that the two senior-most generals in contention for the top post, Army Vice Chief Lieutenant General Upendra Dwivedi and Southern Army Commander Lieutenant General AK Singh, also retire on this day. Both were commissioned into the army in December 1984. Traditionally, a top officer can be appointed as the service chief even if they retire on the same day as the outgoing chief.

The extension has come at a time when it was widely expected that the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government would announce the next army chief before Pande's retirement.

"The Appointments Committee of Cabinet, on May 26, 2024, approved the extension in service of Chief of the Army Staff (COAS) General Manoj Pande for a period of one month, beyond his normal age of superannuation (May 31, 2024), i.e., up to June 30, 2024, under Rule 16 A (4) of the Army Rules 1954," stated the defense ministry.

General Pande, who took over as army chief from General Manoj Mukund Naravane on April 30, 2022, was recently honored at a retiring officers' seminar, adding to the surprise of his extension.

Historically, successive governments have generally adhered to the seniority principle in appointing service chiefs, though there have been exceptions, such as the appointments of General Bipin Rawat in 2016 and Admiral Robin Dhowan in 2014, where senior-most officers were overlooked.

Following Dwivedi and Singh, other top generals include Northern Army Commander Lieutenant General MV Suchindra Kumar, Central Army Commander Lieutenant General NS Raja Subramani, Western Army Commander Lieutenant General Manoj Kumar Katiyar, South Western Army Commander Lieutenant General Dhiraj Seth, Army Training Command Chief Lieutenant General Manjinder Singh, and Eastern Army Commander Lieutenant General Ram Chander Tiwari.

"The extension given to Pande has triggered much speculation about who will succeed him. The top job could go to the senior-most officer or any of the army commanders if the government opts for deep selection. We will have to wait and see," commented a senior officer who preferred to remain anonymous.

A similar extension granted to General Bewoor led to Lieutenant General PS Bhagat being denied the army chief's post.

The government's prerogative to appoint the best candidate for army chief should be exercised transparently to avoid creating instability within the organization, remarked a top retired officer.

The extension for General Pande has created a buzz within the army, especially since he was recently honored for his service. The army expressed its admiration for Pande's contributions on social media, highlighting his dedication and initiatives toward modernizing the force.

"It is the government's prerogative to appoint whoever they feel would make the best army chief," said a retired top officer. "However, taking such a roundabout decision just days before a new appointment can create unnecessary instability in the organization."