Armed forces

In Bucking Army Seniority, Modi Takes a Leaf from Pakistani Playbook

A hard look at our politics and society suggests it may be a good idea to go by seniority alone till we become more complete ‘Indians’ and our approach to governance is more professional.

Indian army soldiers at the war memorial, Fort William in Kolkata. Credit: PTI

Indian army soldiers at the war memorial, Fort William in Kolkata. Credit: PTI

So India has now decided to tail Pakistan. Following Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s decision to go down the seniority list and appoint the officer fourth in the seniority list  as chief of army staff, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, too, has gone down the list to select the officer third in the Indian list of seniority as the army chief, Lieutenant General Bipin Rawat..

Sharif also simultaneously appointed the senior-most in the Pakistani list, Lt Gen Zubair Mehmood Hayat to the rank of Chairman Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee. In  keeping with the trend, we are hearing that Lt Gen Praveen Bakshi might be elevated to the position of chief of a tri-service defence staff.  As Mohan Guruswamy has pointed out in a Facebook post, this would entail Bakshi superseding Rawat, who has just superseded him.

Supersession at the apex level of the army has not been unusual in Pakistan. But the Indian decision to appoint  Rawat, the current vice-chief, as army chief  in succession to General Dalbir Singh Suhag has been met with controversy. The principle of seniority is a hallowed one in the Indian army, and each supersession is remembered as victimisation of a deserving officer like P.S. Bhagat or S.K. Sinha.

It is a bit difficult to accept the government’s claim that Rawat was chosen solely on the basis of his merit. When you reach the rank of an army commander, you have already gathered a life-time’s experience in soldiering. The army chief is not an operational commander who needs to be experienced in counter-insurgency. He is a supervisor – the battlefield commander is the regional army commander. Look at the 1965 war, where Lt Gen Harbaksh Singh commanded the western front, or the 1971 war where Lt Gen Jagjit Singh Aurora commanded the eastern front. If we could push through reforms in our defence system, we would actually have theatre commands and the army chief, as is the case in China, the United States or other countries, would be merely responsible for provisioning and training the force.

Yet, for the present we cannot deny the government its reasoning process. Prime Minister Modi and his cabinet committee on security felt that Rawat had all the requirements they wanted. They may be wrong, but that doesn’t take away their prerogative to take a decision along lines they consider the most optimal.

In doing what the government did, it has followed a laid down procedure –  five army commanders and the serving vice-chief constituted a panel of names which were put up to the CCS for selection. There is no requirement that the senior-most officer be selected, hence the need for a panel. However, over the years, in a bid to avoid controversy over appointments, the governments of the day have gone with seniority. Actually, for no government appointment is strict seniority a good idea – not just for the army chief, but in other departments as well. Ideally, we should do away with the seniority system, provided it is done through a well-thought through design and understanding of the longer-term implications.

The army promotion ladder is steep and is already plagued with another problem—the “zero fault” syndrome, where any error can lead to losing your place in the queue.  As is well known, only people who actually do things are likely to make errors. So, the zero-fault approach leads to an over-cautious officer cadre, which is not good when you want a war-winning military.

Another factor that deserves consideration is the need to give the incumbent of a top office in the military a term of at least four to five years. The current two-year tenure is simply inadequate, with the incumbent taking six months to sit firmly in the saddle and the last six months in planning his retirement. But if longer terms are to become the norm, so will larger scale supersession.

It is true that all this sounds nice in theory, but we live in a deeply divided society where caste, religion and even sub-caste affiliations colour a person’s view. This is evident in the army itself, where chiefs are accused of promoting personnel from their own respective arm and regiment. V.K. Singh was accused of promoting Rajput regiment officers and now Dalbir Singh Suhag is charged with promoting officers from the Gurkha regiments. In such an environment, biases are not just imagined, but real. Besides such biases are the human ones where sycophancy and a desire to please the bosses can be passed off as capability.  An unflinching look at our politics and society would suggest that, perhaps, it is a good idea to go by seniority alone till we become more complete “Indians” and our approach to government and governance is more professional.

That said, there is a problem in appointing Bakshi as CDS after Rawat has been named army chief. Whether it is the Arun Singh committee in 1990, the Group of Ministers recommendations in 2001 or the Naresh Chandra committee in 2012, they have all seen the CDS/permanent chairman chiefs of staff committee as the primus inter pares – or first among equals. He is meant to be the principal and single-point military adviser to the government. In view of that, the Naresh Chandra committee suggested that he be selected from among the serving army, navy or air force chiefs. Hopefully the government will not just make a token appointment. The country desperately needs a CDS figure – not a decorative figurehead – whose office must be fully empowered; just what powers the CDS must enjoy have been listed out by various official committees in great detail. Announcing a CDS without those powers, as some in government have mooted, is to rob a serious recommendation of its substance.

Manoj Joshi is a Distinguished Fellow, Observer Research Foundation