It could be labeled as a once in a blue moon moment––the much awaited and anticipated appointment of General Gaurab Shumsher Rana as the new chief of the army staff (COAS). The hype about this ascendancy is to do with much more than just his privileged background or his professional and competent streak. In fact, it is that unique moment in history when someone who was groomed for the top position from an early stage in his career has actually made it till there. Further, his ascendancy heralds a generational shift in the Nepal army’s history.
General Rana’s rise is inextricably linked with former COAS Dharampal Bar Singh Thapa. Many regard General Thapa to be the most outstanding COAS in NA’s modern history. Of the many attributes and instances that illustrate General Thapa’s brilliance, one that is noteworthy is the speech he delivered during a banquet hosted in honor of the then Indian army chief who had come visiting. Reportedly, General Thapa’s eloquence dwarfed his counterpart’s to the extent that the Indian ambassador was overheard telling the Indian General that he should have come better prepared.
General Rana is General Thapa’s protégé. By sheer coincidence, an incident similar to this occurred with General Rana as well. His speech at the closing ceremony of the first Regional Disaster Management seminar recently organized by the NA was riveting. He not only enthralled the audience and the seemingly uninterested chief guest––Indian army chief General V K Singh––but he also overshadowed all other speakers with his self-written speech.
Besides that towering speech, there are other similar indications of his skill. His pick of military assistant (MA) and military secretary (MS) reflect his determination to surround himself with some of the most capable officers in the organization. The word is that he intends to delegate other important portfolios based on competence and capability.
During his tenure as COAS, promoting meritocracy will potentially be an integral part of an overarching objective of advancing espirit de corps. His grand vision of advancing espirit de corps could essentially comprise of enhancing training, logistics, weapons, armor, research and development (R&D), aviation capabilities and civil-military relations. Better career planning and improved welfare schemes for the ranks and their families are also likely to be prioritized. More importantly, he will strive to consolidate unity along both vertical and lateral lines.
Another crucial step could be to reopen NA’s stalled supply line. The tenets of the Peace Accord had shackled NA for the last six years. Now that the absorption of Maoist combatants is almost complete, NA urgently needs to be liberated from the previous binds that barred it from importing weaponry, and other lethal logistics. Both the immediate neighbors, along with other countries, cannot wait to cater to NA’s requirements. Bearing in mind the institutional interest and imperatives, he will need to astutely juggle these suppliers to extract a propitious deal.
An unavoidable issue that he will be confronted with is the clamor for downsizing/rightsizing of the army. Those who demand this need to understand that whimsically slashing down the size by invoking the economic burden reason would be foolhardy. What is needed is a comprehensive defense review to analyze current and future threats, take into account current capabilities and include the mandate delegated to NA by the government. The optimal force ratio would be deduced through the interplay of these variables. General Rana needs to be able to proficiently clarify this issue.
He will also have to constructively engage with the human rights community which has been pointing fingers at abuses committed during the counter-insurgency campaign. These violations that occurred were aberrations rather than a deliberate institutional policy, and this needs to be communicated across convincingly. General Rana would be wise to temper his approach and employ diplomatic maneuverings. While he can ill-afford to turn a deaf ear, he cannot afford to compliantly hand over his men either. Internal compulsions coupled with the fact that the violators from other camps remain unscathed and are in governing positions means he needs to be extra cautious while handling this issue. He should find balance and demonstrate the institution’s commitment towards upholding human rights.
General Rana’s ability to keep his organization away from political inclinations/influences during this tumultuous transition will also be crucial. At a time when the president and prime minister are headed towards a collision, navigating through a constitutional vacuum between these stakeholders will be tricky. Also, given the abysmal failure of the political forces and the reeking mess they have created, appeals to the military to do something will only escalate. He should not be swayed by such temptations. Nor should he entertain any provocation on behalf of a certain constituency/political party.
Then, there are pitfalls that he would be wise to avoid and some of the mistakes of his predecessor that tarnished his image significantly should serve as a grim reminder. Despite being the unrivaled successor, there were certain machinations to sideline and isolate General Rana and prevent him from becoming COAS. Were he to repeat the same mistake, his untainted image would forever be tarnished in history. Instead, he could set a new constructive precedent. Since there is already an unrivaled frontrunner for the position, he could subtly begin to groom him. By taking his successor and other principal staff officers (PSOs) into confidence, his reform agenda would find more longevity instead of just his years as COAS. Grooming a successor would also curb unwarranted political lobbying for the top post. It would further bolster his internal constituency as well.
GENERAL RANA’S LEGACY
General Rana’s appointment as army chief heralds a generational shift in Nepal Army’s history and has rightly put this brilliant and competent officer in spotlight.
The expectations from General Rana are exceptionally high. In fact, the hopes people had pinned on Baburam Bhattarai as prime minister due to his academic merits are no match to the prevailing hopes from Rana amongst the ranks in NA. Fortuitously, those expectations are complemented with an unparalleled and unwavering internal constituency that will support him to the hilt. Now that he has his moment and a great team, the General shouldn’t squander it like Bhattarai and should march ahead with measured, prudent yet big strides.
The author is a security sector adviser. Views are personal