The announcement by the Government of the successor to Gen. Dalbir Suhag as the next Army Chief has evoked widespread comments, not just from the service community, both serving and retired but from politicians, journalists and just about everybody who is in a position to express an opinion. The cause célèbre for such interest in the appointment is that Lt Gen. Bipin Rawat was chosen over two of his senior colleagues, Lt Gen.Praveen Bakshi and Lt Gen. P.M. Hariz. Some comments have been in bad taste, some show distinct prejudice and a large number show ignorance on matters military to include civil military relations, procedure for the selection of a service chief et al.
A view peddled by some senior veterans was that Gen. Rawat was chosen because he had more experience in counter terrorism operations as applicable to J&K and thus was the ideal choice to head the Army. This was also the view given out by unnamed sources within the Ministry of Defence. The presumption, though unstated, was that the Chief has a hands on role in combatting insurgency and terrorism and hence the August office had to have an incumbent who was master of the game. This is perhaps the most damaging statement that could emanate from people who should know better. Forwarding such logic in effect reduces the office of the COAS to a tactical appointment, required to take on a bunch of terrorists in J&K. In the process, the office of the Army Commander, Northern Command and the rank and file of the entire Northern Army, was belittled.
The Chief is chosen from amongst the six senior most Army Commanders/ Vice Chief. So far, so good. Now let us see how an officer is selected to the post of Army Commander. It may come as a surprise to many that no criteria exists for appointment of a Lieutenant General to the post of Army Commander. Once a Major General ranked officer is approved for the rank of Lieutenant General, then in course of time he will become an Army Commander or even the Chief, if age and seniority are in his favour. This is a serious anomaly in our selection system. It presumes that all officers of Major General rank, once approved for promotion, are fit to be the Chief.
While the Government of the day makes a show of selecting the Chief, the procedure for selecting Army Commanders has no such criteria. Yet, it is from the Army Commanders that the Chief will be selected. The senior most Lieutenant General is made an Army Commander, should he be from the General Cadre and should he have a residual of two years service before superannuation. This is to ensure that an Army Commander has a minimum tenure of two years, but that figure by itself is arbitrary. At this point, it is surprising that not an eyebrow is raised to question the appointment. At the level of Brigade, Division and Corps, most commanders get just about a year in command. Then why a two year period for Army Commander’s, begs the question.
We also have no criteria to select corps commanders. The corps falling vacant falls automatically on the lap of the senior most Major General of the Army from the General Cadre due for promotion. While adherence to seniority by itself cannot be the sole determinant of higher rank, giving puerile explanations muddy the waters and have potentially very serious adverse consequences.
Many political parties and some veterans too have expressed the fear that disregarding seniority will politicise the Army. This view is laughable, but as it emanates from senior veterans and reputed political leaders, must be put through the grinder. As of now, the key determinant as to who will become an Army Commander and later the Chief, is based on one’s date of birth and the fact that the choice is restricted to officers from the General Cadre only. The criticality here is clearing the board for Maj. Gen. for promotion to the rank of Lt Gen. Thereafter, the date of birth takes over. There is an underlying assumption here that if an officer has commanded a division successfully and is found fit to be promoted to the next rank, then he has the requisite expertise to become an Army Commander, should he be the senior most in line and has two years of residual service when his turn comes for assuming the appointment. Thereafter, the senior most incumbent amongst the Army Commander’s/ Vice Chief, will take over as the Chief when the Chief superannuates. This procedure neither throws up the best person to head the various commands nor the best person to head the Army. Nothing prevents officers of the rank of Brigadier and above seeking political favours to get on to the select list of officers approved for promotion. The Boards are approved by the Raksha Mantri and it is not unknown that political interference has taken place in the past wherein some officers were promoted on grounds that had little to do with merit. That has not politicised the Army. At a more insidious level, there have been instances of some unscrupulous officers deliberately sabotaging the promotion prospects of a colleague at the level of Brigadier/ Major General itself, who were competitors for higher rank and who, by virtue of their seniority would have pipped them to the post. To presume that the Army will get politicised now, merely because seniority has been overlooked is belittling, both to the officers of the Armed Forces as well as the political leadership.
Selection of the Chief is done by a Committee headed by the Prime Minister itself. Basing selection on seniority would not require a high powered committee to look into the matter to approve the appointment. We have a high powered committee because the Prime Minister and his Defence Minister must assess who is the ideal commander to lead the Army and deal with the multifarious challenges that the nation is confronted with or is likely to confront. These transcend merely the operational aspects and delve into multifarious aspects dealing with equipping of the force, its state of morale, civil military relations, and a host of other factors. It has a great deal to do with the confidence the Prime Minister has in his Chief to deliver on what he wants done. That is the norm the world over, in all democracies. That is the principle of political control over the military. That is also why, in 1948, Lord Attlee, the then British Prime Minister made Gen. Sir William Slim the CIGS, to take over from Field Marshal Montgomery.
Slim had retired, but Attlee overcame that hurdle by making him a Field Marshal and then appointing him CIGS.
In the Indian scenario, it has been argued that both the Prime Minister and the Defence Minister, especially in peace time, may not have had a detailed interaction with all the Army Commanders to enable a reasoned decision to be made as to who should head the Army. That may be true, but by itself is not a liability. Both the PM and the RM have access to information with respect to their Army Commanders. From there on, a detailed interaction is not required. In any case, the PM meets all the Commanders at least twice a year and both he and the RM would know what they are looking for in their next Chief. It is a matter of gut perception – it cannot be mathematical. If the choice is wrong, there will be a political price to pay as happened in 1962. If the choice is right, there will be political dividends as in 1971. In the instant case, the Prime Minister has chosen. The matter rests there