He might have won the immediate battle, but winning the war is still a far cry. The manner in which Chief of Army Staff (CoAS) General Gaurab Rana was able to craftily deflect the barrage of criticism leveled at his decision to create a new position for Major General Naresh Basnyat is noteworthy. By simply riding his bicycle to work and ordering his subordinates to strictly avoid using military vehicles on Fridays, he outflanked the critics. This novel initiative, propagated as Nepal Army’s “Go Green” campaign to reduce its carbon footprint and ease traffic congestion, actually won him plaudits.
The criticisms, however, started after the CoAS lobbied to promote Major General Naresh Basnyat to Lieutenant General. Even critics acknowledge with envy Basnyat’s ability to deliver exceptional outputs even under most constraining environments. Regardless of Basnyat’s capabilities, the manner in which the CoAS gunned for his elevation was fraught with controversy. While the detractors within the organization sniped at the proposal, the press and critics came out blazing. They argued that it violated the Army act, and alleged that the CoAS had sinister plans to pave way for his preferred candidate to succeed him.
More than 5,000 well-wishers had thronged the Army Club to celebrate General Rana’s appointment as CoAS; no other CoAS in recent history has had such an attendance. For someone who recently ascended to the top amidst such fanfare and expectations, the Basnyat debacle has been a dent on his credibility. Also, his alleged deal with the Maoist Prime Minister could potentially have a lasting impact on his tenure. There were sensational news reports that he had agreed to confer a colonel position to one of the absorbed Maoist combatants and a few other lieutenant colonels in return for a three star position. Reports alleged that he had not consulted his Principal Staff Officers (PSO) or the Defense Ministry. Even if his subordinates in uniform brush this issue aside, Defense Ministry will most likely not. Not only the ministry, but it has also greatly perturbed opposition parties. In this light, his esteem might have gone down within the NA rank and file.
Although Rana’s action may have spooked many, there is more to this story than meets the eye. Besides other things, this incident highlighted the malaise that afflicts the organization. What NA lacks is a retention policy. The best and brightest within the organization are falling off the ladder. The absence of a merit-based promotion system, compounded by lack of incentives and meager pay-scale has compelled many capable officers to look for alternatives. Retaining talent is a major headache for the institution.
Another pressing predicament has to do with UN Peace Keeping Operations. Previously, Nepal ranked among the top five troop-contributing nations. Today, it has slipped to seventh. Despite fielding competent Generals like Nepal Bhusan Chand and Pawan Pande, UN has not awarded any senior position to the NA for quite some time, which is unsettling. NA needs to do some serious introspection regarding this decline, as it has a direct bearing on the reputation and remuneration of the institution. The decision to render an officer’s earnings at par with a normal soldier’s while engaged in peace keeping duties needs to be reevaluated.
And then, there is General Rana’s Facebook page and his vision statement that explicitly avow that NA should engage in nation building. The General’s initiative to reduce carbon footprint comes as a breath of fresh air, but if NA could broaden the scope of its Engineer corps, that would contribute even more to nation building (even Major General Basnyat’s promotion could have been linked to this idea). The institution needs to venture into meeting Nepal’s critical deficiencies—namely clean water and electricity, at a time the country has been reeling under acute power and water shortages. Since Nepal has hardly added any noticeable wattage to the national grid in the last decade, due to cumbersome processes exacerbated by impeding interests and individuals, perhaps NA could take the initiative to fulfill these national needs. If NA has the responsibility of rescuing and providing relief in times of disaster, should it not be allowed to rescue the country from the plague of darkness? Shouldn’t a national instrument of power be utilized to bring water to taps across the country?
Rana’s father Major General Aditya left behind a lasting legacy, and General Gaurab has an overbearing burden because he is expected to follow suit. Other than the new summer office uniform (which, as a matter of fact, is both attractive and appropriate), and his domestic and foreign junkets, his 100 days in office have generated no profound reforms in NA. Instead, he walked into a media gauntlet. Just like he wriggled his way out of it with dexterity, he should skillfully focus on realizing the tenets articulated in his vision statement, even if it means running the gauntlet again. Also, through a publicity campaign, he needs to regain the trust and respect of those constituencies disenfranchised by the promotion debacle. And he would be wise to not to allow his aversion or affection for certain individuals to get in the way.
The author is a Security Sector Adviser. The views expressed are his own