General Purna Chandra Thapa, the 43rd Chief of Army Staff (COAS) of Nepal Army, has begun his customary month-long leave starting Tuesday - a month prior to his official retirement day. His three-year tenure as the chief of the national army can be labelled as many things but ordinary. Compared to most of his predecessors, he had the most impactful tenure and he will most certainly be remembered as a maverick leader who transformed the organization in an unprecedented manner. Behind his soft smile and gentle temperament lay a steely resolve to reform the organization. In a country hobbled by pervasive corruption, he emerged as a military leader who led a crusade against corruption inside the national army and restored the image and dignity of the organization to a great extent. His efforts to uplift the overall professionalism of the army and improve the state of army welfare were momentous. While critics may point to some of his shortcomings such as involving army in the procurement of COVID-19 related medical supplies, Fast Track contract controversies and the high-handedness of some of his trusted senior officers to criticize him, he will nevertheless go down in history as a towering role model for the emerging generation of leaders to come.
When General Thapa took over the army’s command from his predecessor, the country was trying to implement the new constitution and also exercise the federal structure. As the oldest and the strongest institution in the country, this uncharted road demanded the army to strike a fine balance between its role and the expectation. As enshrined in the constitution, it had to ensure that the unity of the Nepali nation was intact while bolstering the nation’s security architecture. Fortunately, Nepal had a relatively stable government that commanded nearly a two-thirds majority in parliament which allowed for some semblance of consistency and stability in policy. General Thapa was probably the only COAS whose almost entire tenure fell under a single government and single Prime Minister. Nevertheless, the situation presented both challenges and opportunities. While the implementation of federal structure was challenging, the army could capitalize on the rare period of stability to strengthen the foundation of national security. It could promote the promulgation and adoption of strategic documents such as a comprehensive national security policy. It was also an opportunity to further strengthen the organization through various durable reforms. General Thapa deserves accolades for wisely navigating through a tumultuous constitutional crisis toward the end of his tenure and ensuring the apolitical sanctity of the army.
Momentus reforms within organization
Although the list of his contributions and achievements is long, his legacy will be remembered mainly for three key contributions. First, it is his style of managing the affairs of the army. Second is the re-orientation of the army. Lastly, it is his contribution to enhancing army welfare that is noteworthy.
His five hour long opening speech probably set the record for the longest by a chief of the Nepali army where he demonstrated a brutal honesty in admitting the problems that plagued the institution and vowed to remedy them. His “Command Guidance 2075’ along with an implementation matrix was one of the most detailed documents ever produced and meticulously executed in the army. He devised other supporting tools of monitoring, evaluation, oversight and feedback through a system of digitization to ensure full implementation of his command guidance. Through the introduction of hierarchical command compacts, he attempted to make everyone accountable and enforced a timeline to test the capacity of the ranks and files.
General Thapa's innovative streak in digitizing the army HQ can be regarded as a momentous reform in the organization. Although his fastidious nature earned him heaps of blames for being a micromanager, his personal interest and involvement made the system work efficiently. By the end of his tenure, most of the tasks he envisioned to implement are either completed, or are near completion. Featuring his vision, intent and seven critical objectives with 151 associated tasks, the command guidance remained as the guiding document for the organization and is likely to be emulated by the emerging leaders in the organization.
Fighting corruption and promoting self-reliance
Nepal Army has long been considered an opaque institution in terms of financial transparency and accountability, and nepotism and favouritism are considered deeply embedded in the institution. Nepal Army insiders say these perceptions have changed to a great extent during General Thapa's tenure. His steely resolve to uproot corruption, nepotism and favouritism in the national army has borne handsome dividends. From the onset, General Thapa had pronounced that he would take stern action against any breach in military discipline, ethics and code of conduct and he enforced it ruthlessly. Taking action against dozens of senior officials including generals over financial and other irregularities is something that none of his predecessors in the recent past even dared to think.
General Thapa also put best of his efforts to eradicate irregularities in the recruitment, posting and promotion and UN selection system by adhering to the principles of equity and transparency. The outcome of the stern measures he took against those involved in irregularities during the recruitment process was visible a year later. "There was less attraction of talented youths toward the Nepal Army. This was a matter of worry. But our internal investigation showed that talented few were not attracted to the army as they already seem to have a belief that you must have either money to pay in bribe or someone already in the army to pick them up. But this has changed with a large number of talented youths applying for the officer cadet positions after those involved in financial irregularities during the recruitment process were either punished or sacked," shared a senior official.
Despite some opposition within the organization, General Thapa consistently advocated and encouraged ethical, financial and personal probity. His initiatives to make the army self-reliant in most logistical supplies are equally laudable. "General Thapa wanted to see the operation of the boot factory during his tenure. Although the project is yet to kick off, this will eventually be established in a few months time," said an NA General, recalling General Thapa's efforts to ensure self-reliance right since he assumed office as the COAS.
The lower ranks of Nepal Army are all in high spirits and will remember their commander for the bold steps he took to not only improve their lives but also to genuinely address their grievances by curbing their exploitation by their superiors. His direct methods to interact with the soldiers by occasionally breaking the chain of command irked many but gave him the unique opportunity to reach out to them effectively and in communicating his vision of change. His effort to improve housing, rations and leadership development of soldiers is noteworthy. Most noteworthy, however, was his success in influencing the government to bring down the pensionable age for soldiers to sixteen years from twenty years, a long held demand of the lower ranks.
Introducing operational reorientation of the army
His second key contribution was the operational reorientation of the Nepali army. General Thapa will be credited for his visionary organizational restructuring along the ‘3 plus 1 command’ concept. Although, it will be too early to call it a success because its impact will only be realised in the years to come, it is already widely lauded for its strategic outlook. Departing from the traditional divisional systems, the newly-adopted command structure is perfectly aligned with Nepal’s diverse and unique geographical conditions and is best suited to meet the Nepal Army’s constitutionally mandated tasks. It is also a departure from the traditional idea of deploying the military along the political and administrative boundaries and most defence experts have applauded this bold decision asserting that now the defence deployments will be more effective and efficient.
Following the adoption of the command, there is now a clear demarcation of tasks between the Army HQ at strategic level, Command HQ at the operational planning level and Brigades at the fighting tactical level. General Thapa also knew very well that cooperation and coordination with other security agencies is a must to ensure effective national security and acted accordingly. His visit to Nepal Police Headquarters -- the first time ever by any incumbent army chief -- to congratulate newly-appointed Nepal Police Chief Shailesh Thapa is a testimony to this. Thapa also ensured equally close coordination with the Armed Police Force (APF), which is mandated to guard Nepal's international border. It was never such a close cooperation the army established with other security agencies.
Expanding welfare scheme for soldiers
Another equally important contribution that General Thapa made is the exponential expansion of the welfare scheme for the soldiers, retirees and their families. Formulation of Nepal Army Welfare Vision was one of his visionary agendas. This is expected to guide future welfare programs that will address the emerging needs of its beneficiaries in the context of modern societal requirements. It sets the tone for future programs in the four key sectors - Education, Health, Skills Development and Self-employment, and Facilities and Benefits for the beneficiaries. His focus on agriculture and self-reliance for the retirees is well suited to our national context as agriculture has the biggest share in the national economy.
Among other things, General Thapa’s contribution to the increase in the amount of the welfare fund remains unparalleled. His predecessor General Chhattra Man Singh Gurung has attributed the above 60% rise (highest until then) in the welfare amount to the diligence of General Thapa who was then the director of the welfare fund. During General Thapa’s time as chief, however, the previous record he set was beaten. The amount rose close to 70% - the highest rise in the history of army welfare. This again demonstrated his commitment to transparency and accountability and his resolve to fight against corruption and financial irregularities.
A role model for emerging generation of miliary leaders
Overall, it is fair to say that General Thapa has left an indelible footprint in the history of Nepal Army. The upcoming generations of military leaders will surely remember him as a bold and highly devoted military leader unlike any other in the recent past and be inspired by what he managed to achieve during his tenure. Given how there is a critical lack of good leaders in all other sectors of the government, he will undoubtedly be regarded as a superior role model by the entire country and be reminded of what a leader should embody. Notwithstanding some petty criticisms that some level against him, General Thapa has definitely earned a thumping acclamation and an unassailable stature. As he retires after 41 years in service, he leaves behind a boot too large for his successors to fill-- a massive challenge for the emerging generation of military leaders to match or even surmount.