A fine balance

Jettisoning seniority principle without creating a better selection process could hurt civil-military poise.

Written by Sushant Singh | Published:December 20, 2016 12:03 am
army chief, bipin rawat, lt general bipin rawat , new army chief, new army chief supersession, army chief appointment, appointment of new army chief, opposition on new army chief, india news, indian express Lt Gen Bipin Rawat

It is an occurrence so rare in India that the announcement of Lt General Bipin Rawat as the new army chief by superseding two of his seniors — Lt General Praveen Bakshi and Lt General P.M. Hariz — was bound to cause controversy. In principle, there can be no argument with the civilian government choosing an army chief it finds suitable considering the prevailing security environment and requirements. That is the essence of civil-military relations in a democracy, and a principle followed in most modern and mature democracies. Seniority cannot be the sole determinant for any post in any modern organisation, including the military.

But things have been different in India, and a lot of this flows from the experience of the 1962 India-China war. Among the many lessons learnt from that military debacle by the political leadership, particularly the first post-1962 defence minister, Y.B. Chavan, was that he should have a hands-off policy towards all the operational issues pertaining to the defence services. The insularity from political influence got even stronger with the passage of time, and such has been the situation that the political leadership now only deals with the army chief — or, at best, the director general of military operations — when it comes to the army. This means that even the army commanders of operational commands, whether it be the northern command looking after Kashmir or eastern command involved in fighting insurgencies in the Northeast, rarely get to interact directly with the political leadership.

As an outcome of that insularity and to shield military promotions from “political interference”, the system arrived at this norm of following the seniority for selecting military chiefs. It is not enshrined in any law or rule book, but has been followed bar once in 1983 when Lt General S.K. Sinha was overlooked for promotion to the post of army chief by the Indira Gandhi government. There have been a couple of similar cases in the navy and the air force, but none as controversial as Lt General Sinha who promptly resigned from service. He later contested the Lok Sabha election from Patna as an independent candidate, supported by the Opposition parties, which he lost. The political controversy surrounding Lt General Sinha’s supersession further had the effect of reinforcing the norm of seniority, with politicians becoming even more averse to being seen as interfering in the affairs of the military.

This principle of seniority is publicly seen as a person being appointed as a military chief solely because of an accident of date of birth and seniority. The inter-se seniority of officers from the same batch is determined by their performance at the training academies, which hardly has any bearing on his suitability as a military chief 40 years later. Those who argue in favour of seniority say that the few people who remain in contention for the post of a military chief are there because they have risen to the top in a deeply hierarchical military. They have been selected by four promotion boards, and each one of them is meritorious by virtue of the hoops crossed on the way to becoming an army commander. There is little to choose between them. The discretion of the government should thus only be used as a veto in case the system has failed and thrown up someone egregiously bad.

When the political leadership makes a deep selection and the people overlooked do not have any big red tick against them, it is bound to raise heckles in the organisation. The bigger worry is that it could soon lead to a situation where various contenders start courting political leadership for patronage, as has been the case with the DGPs of state police forces. In the late 1990s, there were a couple of cases of political leaders recommending certain names for military chiefs to the central government. The government wisely chose to ignore those political pleas, putting an end to that practice. When it comes to seeking political patronage, the case of the Pakistan army, which also owes its origins to the colonial British army, is instructive. In the 1970s, Pakistani PM Z.A. Bhutto made General Zia ul-Haq the army chief after superseding seven generals, after Zia had made Bhutto the honorary colonel of his regiment and got him photographed in the military uniform. Even today, the selection of army chief in Pakistan is made by the political leadership but the process of selection is always controversial and problematic.

The issue at the core of this debate is the process of selection. The alternative to the longstanding norm of seniority cannot be an arbitrary selection by the political leadership. There should be a due process to weigh various contenders, where each candidate’s suitability on certain established parameters is considered by the political leadership. Besides an understanding of military ethos and culture, it would require a certain interactive awareness among the political leadership of the career path, performance and potential of military officials. There is a fine line to tread between interaction and interference but that is a risk inherent in making deep selection. That risk, however, is better than making a blind selection based on personal political preferences.

Formalising and institutionalising the process of selection will remove arbitrariness while shielding the military from political interference. It will also instill a sense of fairness while rewarding merit. Doing this will take a lot of effort from the political leadership but in its absence, the politicians will be leaving themselves open to all kinds of charges of favouritism, parochialism and sectarianism. As in 1962, any future military setback will then be laid at the door of the politicians. Jettisoning the principle of seniority without creating a better alternative will be detrimental to the delicate balance of civil-military relations, which boasts of an unblemished track record in India so far.

sushant.singh@expressindia.com

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  1. R
    Ramakrishnan
    Jan 6, 2017 at 7:49 am
    All the selection boards have laid down criteria and those on the panel for promotion are put through these criteria by a point system. Based on the points scored they are put in a merit list and the required number are approved for the next rank. Why can't the Govt lay down criteria for selection to the Chief's appt and do the selection objectively based on these criteria? These criteria should be known to every one and should not be changed frequently. Then there will be a fair system of selection. There is yet another point connected with this, that of putting them through equated operational experience as Bde and Div commanders as well as operational staff. In ter arm exposure in the ranks of Capt/Major is yet another measure which will give adequate varied operational experience to officers of all arms.
    Reply
    1. S
      Sri
      Dec 20, 2016 at 3:53 pm
      Meritocracy does not need a process, Mediocracy require a process. India has had enough mediocracy and it is time for some meritocracy and excellence.
      Reply
      1. I
        indian
        Dec 21, 2016 at 12:30 am
        The appointment of a military chief is the sole prerogative of the Government. The government claims they made this appointment based on the new chief''s particular expertise in counter terrorism - which appears to be the need of the hour. What's wrong with that? Just politics.
        Reply
        1. L
          Lovely
          Dec 20, 2016 at 12:02 pm
          This is not clerical post, it depends on many factors.Be careful before writing useless trash.
          Reply
          1. A
            abc
            Dec 20, 2016 at 5:20 pm
            Indianexprezz should be renamed to StupidExpress
            Reply
            1. B
              Balaji
              Dec 20, 2016 at 3:31 am
              If seniority is everything then What is the role of performance. If a non performing senior will get his chance then what is the role of Govt. Do not elect Govt and instead put everything in the system and let them enjoy as per the seniority. What a poor logic this writer showing. Whether this article comes from his logical brain or from the hate brain is difficult to understand. It shows the mentality of some so called intellectuals towards the Modi. They do not want to understand that it is not Modi alone it is the Govt ,means a group of intelligent people doing the act for the country. Articles coming to media without perfect logic is only baffling the public mind . This is really very dangerous than the appointment itself. These people with their unknowingly politics damaging the spirit of the defence force.
              Reply
              1. B
                Billu
                Dec 20, 2016 at 5:23 am
                Nobody can trust Murari Lal Modi who annouced Demonetisation without printing new Currency. People are scared he may start Bullet train without laying down tracks for it. People are worried about border due to his appoinment that Nation does not have to pay price specially our soldiers putting their lives on risk while kiddish spoken Parikar yelling at everyone and dancing and jumping in surgical style. So many j*kers in BJP Government.
                Reply
                1. B
                  Bochan
                  Dec 20, 2016 at 5:46 am
                  Already 100 deaths in Bank queue due to faulty decision people are worried because of this appointment we do not see mayhem on border.
                  Reply
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