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.
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