A general mess

The negatives of replacing the selection system will be strongly resisted by military and politicians as both will perceive it as disruptive

While the colonial-era tradition of Indian Army officers not discussing women or politics — issues with supposedly disruptive potential — in the officers’ mess may be intact, Army politics has always drawn conversation but rarely prompted bad feelings in the way it is doing now. The officer corps — disinterested members aside — is split between those partial to the izzat (honour) argument pushed by the current Chief of Army Staff (COAS), Gen. V.K. Singh, and others, not all necessarily backing Lt. Gen. Bikram Singh, GoC-in-C, Eastern Command, who worry that, whatever the merits of Gen. Singh’s case, the Army’s image has taken a hit.

An amusing side-show saw the Western Army commander, Lt. Gen. S.R. Ghosh who, as the next senior most officer, on discovering he would be in the running for the top post if Gen. Singh was fired or, out of pique or his izzat-logic, resigned before his time was up, quickly reversed a medical disability status fetching higher pension he had secured for himself, and pranced around for reporters to indicate he was in tip-top shape!
Like many other problems that afflict this country, the one relating to the selection of the Chiefs of Staff of the three armed services too was seeded in the early years. In reply to a 1948 note from defence minister Sardar Baldev Singh, asking whether merit or seniority should be the criterion in selecting officers to top posts in the Army, Jawaharlal Nehru insightfully replied that if both merit and seniority were given weightage, seniority would soon elbow out merit. Whatever the reasons ultimately for K.M. Cariappa becoming the commander-in-chief in 1949, the seniority factor unfortunately got the nod. Of the two other officers being considered then — Lieutenant Generals Nathu Singh Rathore and K.S. Rajendrasinhji, the former was brash and outspoken and no doubt irked Nehru. On Nehru’s musing out aloud that owing to insufficient command experience of most Indian officers at the time, the Army might benefit from a few more years of British general-ship, the quicksilver Rathore riposted that on that basis the Indian government too would be better off headed by Britons considering most Indian politicians had no experience whatsoever of running government! Rajendrasinhji was the first Indian officer to win a gallantry award (Distinguished Service Order) in the field in World War II.
There is good reason to believe that after his offer to Field Marshal William Slim, the brilliant commander of the Indian Fourteenth Army, which drove the Imperial Japanese land forces out of Southeast Asia, to succeed Field Marshal Claude Auchinleck as commander-in-chief, was turned down, Nehru wanted a fighting general to lead the Army and, a few years later, first asked Rajendrasinhji to replace Gen. Roy Bucher. To both Rathore (who many claim was also offered the post) and Rajendrasinhji is attributed the high-minded statement that their senior, Cariappa, shouldn’t be bypassed.
Cariappa as Western Army commander during the 1947-48 Kashmir operations did not impress Nehru with his leadership qualities, who perhaps believed that the battle-hardened Rajendrasinhji would have done a better job of it. In any event, with Cariappa followed by Rajendrasinhji, a wrong precedent was set. The Indian Army has paid a heavy price; not the brightest officers have always headed it. The other two services, being smaller, manage their cadres somewhat better with especially the Navy consistently throwing up competent people as Service Chiefs. The Air Force, whose top posts are monopolised by fighter jocks, falls somewhere in between the Army and the Navy.
With seniority as the sole criterion for promotion, we have a vast majority of officers aspiring to top posts becoming progressively more risk-averse in decision-making as they climb up the steep promotional ladder. The consequence of an over-cautious, almost inert, institutional-qua-leadership mindset has been there for all to see for several decades now. The Army Chiefs, for instance, have stuck to a stunted vision responsible for the skewed order of battle that reveals a singular talent for mistaking the minor foe (Pakistan) for major adversary, even as the real danger posed by the Chinese People’s Liberation Army is not addressed, if evidence of the deployment of the main force is anything to go by.
The purely seniority-driven promotion system the military is straitjacketed in means the year of birth is crucial and the documents validating it decisively important. The anomaly with respect to Gen. Singh is that all the records with the Adjutant General (AG) — the record-keeper of the Army — support his contention. The Union Public Service Commission form for admission to the National Defence Academy with the Military Secretary’s Office responsible for postings and cadre/career management, however, shows an earlier year of birth. If the AG’s records have always determined age-related promotion and tenure, then the government’s reliance in this one case on a document available with the MS branch, makes the government’s case legally weak, which is probably why COAS has confidently gone to the court.
Braving a bit of egg on its face, the government should let Gen. Singh serve out his full, legitimate term in office. This will have far smaller fallout than if, standing on ego, it ousts him, which will set an even worse precedent and complicate the situation. Until now the selection of Service Chiefs, because based on material criterion (birth year document), was safely pre-determined. The upside was that it absolved the politicians, principally the Prime Minister and defence minister, of applying their minds to choosing military Chiefs of Staff. The negatives of replacing this selection system with the more professionally desirable merit-based one will be strongly resisted by the military as well as the politicians because both will perceive it as disruptive. If the government owns up its fault on the condition that Gen. Singh puts in his papers, or the Army Chief resigns anyway before his retirement date, then the government will have no option, on seniority principle, but to appoint Lt. Gen. Ghosh as COAS, leaving Lt. Gen. Bikram Singh in the lurch. But this is a far better option than permitting a succession plan hatched by a couple of less-than-scrupulous Army Chiefs to go through, thereby avoiding the worst possible denouement imaginable — an enraged Army.

The writer is a professor at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi

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