The choice of Lt. General Bipin Rawat as the next army chief has created a flutter in the military establishment. Bypassing two senior army commanders is a rare occurrence. As several commanders have pointed out, the last time it happened was in 1983 when Indira Gandhi elevated Gen Arun Vaidya over Lt Gen S K Sinha (who promptly resigned). But this was not the only instance. In 1957 Jawaharlal Nehru chose Gen. K S Thimmaya superseding two senior Lt. Generals Sant Singh and Kulwant Singh (the later stayed on, while the former resigned)
This time around, there is apparently the possibility that Lt. General Praveen Bakshi may be appointed as Chief of Army Staff, the single-point military advisor to the Defence Minister. While the outcome may be comforting to the Indian army, it will entail passing over the current navy chief—the senior-most chief—for the post.
Whatever the outcome, this episode triggered a much-needed discussion on the selection of service chiefs. The seniority principle’s downsides are evident. Between two senior officers from the same course, for instance, seniority is determined based on their ranking in the military academy decades ago. Few will dispute the fact that this has any relevance to their performance at the apex of the military system but the principle remains in place. The case for adherence to seniority has been made on three grounds.
First, the seniority is held to be the best guarantee against politicisation of top appointments. Do we want the military to go the way of police where promotion depends on political favour? This is a strong argument but the comparison is flawed and misleading. It overlooks the fact that the police’s nature and function in politics are very different from the army.
The concern about politicalisation also overlooks the importance of issue of effectiveness. The institutional design of civil-military relations always entails a trade-off between democratic control and effectiveness. In privileging the former by emphasising seniority, we have long overlooked the demand for military efficacy. Even the staunchest advocates of the seniority principle would be hard pressed to deny that it periodically gives us mediocrity at the top. In fact, the case would be strengthened if they conceded the importance of efficacy, but pointed out that overlooking seniority does not guarantee better outcome either. The choice of Thimmaya resulted in the most serious standoff between an army chief and the government when the former publicly resigned only to retract soon after. Under Vaidya, the army undertook the most controversial military operation since Independence: Operation Blue star.
The second argument in the case of seniority is the absence of any objection criterion of merit in choosing service chiefs. While superficially correct, this too ignores deeper problems. The promotion of military officer at the lower levels is not objective just because it is decided by service boards. Every officer knows that annual confidential reports can take away from their inherent subjectivity assessment. No amount of quantification can take away from their inherent subjectivity. The idea that there can clearly be a benchmark of merit in appointing chiefs, beggars belief. Thoughtful retired officers have suggested something akin to a collegian system for selection of chiefs. While such system may ensure broader consensus, it will also impinge on the prerogative of the executive.
The third and strongest case of seniority is the fact that our political leadership does not interact enough with senior military commanders to be able to take an informed call. This stems from the longstanding practice of political leadership steering clear of operational matters. Obviously, the flip side is also true. Few of our officers have any exposure to policy-making. Unless the problem is remedied from both ends, top military appointment especially if a CDS is instituted—will remain controversial.
The current episode also raises the question of what kind of operational experience is relevant to service chiefs. The Line of Control with Pakistan may be hot now but why do we have the commanders and the Northern Army commanders if the chief’s personal experience is supposed to count so much? What about his relative lack of experience, say, in mechanised formations in the plains. The army chief is the Chief of Army Staff. His primary role ought to be of the chief of staff rather than an operational commander. The point will acquire greater importance as we move toward a CDS structure.
The privileging of particular kinds of operational experience is problematic for two further reasons. It may give us service chiefs who are equipped to fight the last war rather than the next one. It also vitiates the idea of general cadre in senior ranks. Already the post of army chief is effectively closed off to officers who are not from fighting arms. Introducing an infantry versus armoured corps dimension would be unfortunate—especially in the context of recent litigation about vacancies for officers from various branches.
The choice of service chief is a matter of political judgment. It involves multiple trade-offs and considerations that cannot be wished away by sticking to seniority or hankering after criteria of merit. But with all political judgements, it will be open to public scrutiny.
(The views expressed are strictly personal.)