Armed forces

Don’t Politicise Army Chief’s Appointment, or Run Down the Record of those Superseded

The factors the CCS may look at in evaluating a candidate for army chief may include his risk taking profile, decisiveness, tolerance of complexity, tolerance of ambiguity and synergy with other stake holders.

File photo of Lt Gen Bipin Rawat, who will take over as chief of the Indian army on December 31, 2016. Credit: PTI

File photo of Lt Gen Bipin Rawat, who will take over as chief of the Indian army on December 31, 2016. Credit: PTI

The government announced the nomination of Lieutenant General Bipin Rawat as the new army chief on Saturday. He will assume his appointment on the evening of December 31, when the present chief, General Dalbir Singh retires. Since there has been no word on the appointment of a Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) – a new position that one of the two officers senior to the new army chief could be appointed to – the superseded officers would now resign, as has been the norm. They are not compelled to, but service customs dictate that they retire prior to General Rawat assuming his appointment. As a courtesy, he would have spoken to them and requested them to continue.

The opposition has been critical of the announcement, demanding that the government give its reasons for superseding two seniors. The government was correctly expecting the opposition to raise the issue, hence delayed it till the announcement till after the conclusion of parliament’s winter session. Parliament was adjourned sine die on December 16; the announcement was made the next day.

There could be many reasons for the government to select Rawat ahead of his seniors, some of which have been raised in the media on the basis of official leaks which suggest his service profile and experience of serving and commanding in all operational sectors of the country is why he was chosen. Another reason suggested is his present appointment as vice chief and consequent proximity to those in power. These reasons are only partially correct. Much more would have been at stake before the government took the decision.

The seniority principle is not followed in most countries around the globe for varying reasons. It is ignored in the United States, France, Germany, China, Pakistan and elsewhere. It remains the norm in Britain, where, due to a small army, there are very few contenders for the top post. In India, the government is officially at liberty to choose an army chief from the collegium comprising of three senior-most serving lieutenant generals. Rawat was third in seniority in the list. Bypassing  seniors for the post of army chief already has a precedent. However, in earlier cases only one officer was bypassed, not two, as at present – Lt Gen Praveen Bakshi and Lt Gen P.M. Hariz.

The government need not broadcast the reasons for its selection. The committee which finalises the appointment does so based on inputs and would have sound reasons for its decision. In the past, governments played safe as they also wanted to avoid unnecessary controversies. Further, there was minimum interaction between political leaders and the military brass, as against the present, when the prime minister himself meets all three chiefs at least once a month. In the two earlier cases of supersession in the army, there was a strong prime minister in the chair, Indira Gandhi.

Arm, service and operational experience matter little in such selections. After commanding a corps, the only aspect which enables an officer to become a member of the collegium and be considered for chief is command of an army – for which his date of birth is the only governing factor. There have been chiefs with even lesser operational experience than those who were superseded. In addition, all in contention are capable, qualified and equally competent. That is the reason they have risen to this level. Any weaknesses or flaws in their functioning would have seen them being superseded in earlier ranks. The suggestion, made in unofficial leaks, that the reason the two officers were superseded is that they possessed lesser operational experience is too far-fetched. The chief is responsible for coordination and allocation of resources. He does not direct operations himself. Operations are conducted and controlled at the level of army commanders and below. Hence, service in every operational area is not essential. The inputs of each area would soon be available to him by his visits and briefings.

Service chiefs basically operate at the national strategic level of management of security. The overall responsibility is of the apex political body, the cabinet committee on security (CCS), with whom the chiefs closely interact. This body is directly involved with the selection of service chiefs. At this level, selection based solely on  ‘date of birth’ may not be completely justified. A decision is more likely to be based on the ‘relative ease of working’ rather than just seniority. Relative ease implies certain qualities which are essential at that level, especially when, for example, the government is following a pro-active policy against India’s immediate neighbours. The factors the CCS may look at in evaluating a candidate for army chief may include his risk taking profile, decisiveness, tolerance of complexity, tolerance of ambiguity and synergy with other stake holders at that level. In simple terms, it is mutual understanding and commonality on thought and operational issues.

Solely following the seniority principle has at times caused damage to the system. From the time an army chief assumes  the mantle, his next-to-next successor is already being announced in the media. Such predictability leads to officers, solely on age criteria, assessing their chances and working towards the top post. It can bring in a culture of officers playing safe and avoiding rocking the boat. This negatively impacts the army. Occasionally, there should be a break from the standard.

While I do sympathise with those superseded, and know both officers well, the decision of the government must be accepted in a democracy. It makes sense to strengthen the chief’s hands now that he has been appointed. Armchair strategists and politicians should avoid criticising the government’s choice solely based on the arm or service of officers, just as the government should not take recourse to such arguments in order to justify its appointment and consequent supersession.

Harsha Kakar is a retired major general of the Indian army  and a strategic writer based out of Lucknow. He can be followed on Twitter @kakar_harsha