Nepal Army has not been immune from the radical changes since the 2006 abolition of monarchy and heralding of a secular republic. The most important of those was a change in its leadership, with the baton for the NA commander-in-chief passing from the hereditary monarch to the democratically elected president and bringing of its chain-of-command under a democratically elected government. But NA is far from being transformed into a truly inclusive institution that reflects the make-up of the national population. This despite the fact that in Chhatra Man Singh Gurung the country got its first janajati army chief. Now, Lieutenant General Gaurav Shumsher Rana takes over from Gurung, thereby spelling an end of a largely controversy-free reign of Gurung.
It remains to be seen if Rana can follow on Gurung’s footsteps and be able to keep the institution above the fray of party politics. The intense political lobbying for appointment of new army chief certainly gives some troubling signs. The government, nonetheless, has been right to avoid any further controversy in these volatile times by following the army chain of command in the appointment of its new chief. When the previous Maoist Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal had tried to push out Rookmangud Katawal, to elevate the Maoist chief’s confidante Kul Bahadur Khadka to the top post, PM Dahal had to pay with his job. Such a tussle between the new army chief and the incumbent caretaker government looks unlikely, not just because this government has been careful not to disrupt the chain of command, but also because Rana has good rapport with top leaders of all three main parties, and is reportedly in the good books of Bhattarai.
Although Rana’s appointment is not expected to bring about sea change in the army’s overall operation, there are some clear challenges before the new chief. Immediate on his priority list should be completing the final stages of the integration process which have been stalled for over a month over controversies on age limit and education level of 3,100 PLA ex-combatants who chose the integration option. As we have been repeatedly emphasizing in this space, the opposition parties and the army should not insist on hard and fast rules on integration, for the feared danger of political indoctrination of army has largely vanished with the minimal number of ex-fighters choosing the integration option. Another big challenge for the incoming chief would be to push for inclusiveness in the army through greater representation of the marginalized groups like Madhesis, janajatis, dalits and women.
This challenge will be compounded by the fact that while NA needs to make new recruitments to make its ranks more inclusive, there is also a pressing need to cut down on its overall size in keeping with the changed security situation. Rana’s third big challenge would be to keep the institution above the fray of politics, which is easier said than done in today’s polarized political climate. The farther away the new army chief stays from major political issues, the better it will be for an organization whose loyalties to a democratic setup are still doubted. Rana comes with formidable credentials and an illustrious army record spanning 40 years. His real mettle will be tested not on his capacity to leverage for dubious political concessions but on whether he can refrain from doing so in the three years of his tenure