Monday, January 2, 2017

Selection of Chief: Auto-Pilot Route to the Top?

by Major General Mrinal Suman

Recent appointment of the Chief of the Army Staff is being criticized by many. Most unfairly, they are terming it as a case of ‘supersession’ or ‘out-of-turn promotion’ or ‘breaching the line of succession’. Their opposition is based on the following grounds:-

·   All Army Commanders are equally capable of being              the Chief.

·    Seniority is sacrosanct and inviolable.

·   The government has no right to meddle in the                       promotions of the army. It is for the army to throw up       the senior-most as the prospective Chief.

The above logic is based more on insular sentiments than sound reasoning. Though equally applicable to all the three services, further discussion is being restricted to the army for the ease of analyzing the issue. To start with, it will be in order to recapitulate the existing system of selecting officers for the senior ranks.

Current Process is Highly Flawed

As per the present procedure, all general cadre officers of the rank of Major General are screened by a promotion board for approval for the rank of Lieutenant General (Lt Gen). Once empanelled, they stand in a queue as per their seniority; waiting for the vacancies of Corps Commander to come about. Those with more than three years’ residual service become Corps Commanders. Others, even if more talented are wasted out on staff appointments. Hence, the Corps Commanders are not necessarily the most talented officers of their batch. They were simply lucky – their date of birth matched vacancies.   

During 1998-1999, many brilliant Lt Gens failed to get command of Corps due to their unfavorable age-wise placement. Once the government extended retirement age of all service officers by two years, they had three years residual service and became eligible. They rightfully demanded and got appointed as Corps Commanders. This case has been recalled here to demonstrate utter lack of merit in the whole process.

The same flawed process is followed for the appointment of Army Commanders. Once again, they form a queue, hoping and praying that a vacancy comes their way before their residual service falls below two years. No cognizance is taken of their performance as Corps Commanders. Following the same procedure, the senior-most serving Army Commander gets appointed as the Chief.

The above procedure can be equated with ‘auto-pilot ride’ – an army officer is required to prove his competence till he achieves the rank of Lt Gen. Thereafter; he rides auto-pilot and makes career advances purely on account of his seniority and date of birth. If well-placed in the age-seniority queue, any Lt Gen can be the Chief.

An interesting corollary of the above arrangement is that every general cadre officer approved to be Lt Gen is considered capable of being the Chief and, at any given time, there are over 60 such officers. It implies that either the Chief’s job is so pedestrian that it can be performed by a multitude of officers, or, the army is flooded with abundance of talent. No rational organisation can boast of such a claim.

The wisdom of accepting the logic that every Corps Commander is fit to be the Chief is totally absurd. How can the criteria for a Corp Commander and the Chief be the same? A Corps Commander is a field commander of around 30,000 troops whereas a Chief wears multiple hats while heading 1.3 million-strong army. To equate the two appointments is highly untenable.

The current system has another major drawback. It lends itself to manipulation by unscrupulous Chiefs and thus perpetuates a regime of patronage. Every Chief, on assumption of office obtains details of the dates of birth (and thus retirement dates) of senior officers and thereafter, identify prospective officers from his regiment or ilk. Before his tenure ends, he tweaks the system to ensure that the selected protégé is suitably placed and all likely challenges to his advancement are nipped in the bud. In other words, he firmly plants him in the ‘line of succession’.

Earlier such manipulation was done in a discreet manner. Over a period of time, the practice has become so well entrenched that Chiefs have no qualms in openly flaunting their favoritism. In the recent past, one such parochial Chief resorted to unscrupulous means to clear way for his protégé to be the Chief. He found out that along with stalling promotion of other competent contenders to the rank of Lt Gen, he needed to curtail the tenure of a future Chief by a year to ensure top slot for his protégé. As a consequence, the army was saddled with a Chief who knew that he did not deserve to be there. 

It is a well known fact that most Chiefs cannot shed their regimental bias. Instead of selecting best talent for higher appointments, their blinkered approach fails to see beyond infantry, armoured corps and artillery loyalties. Chiefs who have benefited from such preferred dispensation feel morally obliged to carry on in the same vein and extend similar benefaction to their regimental subordinates.

Another issue that is commonly overlooked relates to the fixation of individual seniority. Within a batch, inter-se seniority is decided on the basis of the order of merit at the time of passing out from the Indian Military Academy (IMA) and does not change throughout the service career.

There have been numerous cases where highly competent officers failed to pick up appointments of Corps Commanders, Army Commanders and even Chief; just because their course-mates were higher in the merit list prepared at IMA 35 years ago. Thus performance at IMA continues to be the decisive factor for promotion to the higher ranks. Operational service, war experience and demonstrated competence over decades of active career become inconsequential. Can there be a more irrational way of selecting top brass? 

It should never be forgotten that it is the national government that is responsible for the defence of the country. National security is not an exclusive domain of the services. The armed forces do not exist and function in an insular environment. They are an instrument of the state.

It is for the government to decide how best to discharge its duties of ensuring national security. For that, it has an unalienable prerogative to choose the best talent and it does not need to justify its choice. Fearing accusations of meddling in the internal functioning of the services, the government cannot abdicate its responsibility and allow the services to deprive the nation of the best talent available, that too under a highly specious plea of seniority.

Indian army is riven with regimental factionalism. Senior commanders advance in career but fail to grow up. They never shed their blinkered outlook. The mess created while granting additional vacancies to different arms and services is symptomatic of their narrow-mindedness. To favour their own arm/regiment, they have delivered a terrible blow to the army’s cohesion.

Surprisingly, we appear comfortable with such internal parochialism and no voices are heard against such blatant partisanship. But, when the government exercises its prerogative to select Chief, our hackles go up and we start accusing it of politicization of the army. We call it interference in the internal affairs of the army; as if the army is an exclusive domain, independent of government oversight.

The current system is most unacceptable. The concept of age-seniority based ‘line of succession’ ought to be discarded and replaced by merit based selection by impartial boards for higher ranks in the services. We have had enough of mediocre leadership. Even Army Commanders should be appointed through a diligent selection process.

Finally, two posers:-

· If the system of seniority based promotions is the best, why start so late at the level of Corps Commanders? Why not select/promote Brigade Commanders and Divisional Commanders on the basis of their inter-se seniority? What is good for senior appointments ought to be good for junior appointments as well!

· Agreed that all Corps Commanders are competent but some are brighter than the others. Should the army not get the best leadership? Similarly, all Army Commanders are capable officers and can assume the mantle of heading the army commendably. However, their suitability for the top job will not be identical. Why should the most suitable man not get selected? Why should the second-best leadership be given preference under the illogical plea of seniority?

The current controversy is most unwarranted. Quality of top military brass is too serious a matter to be left to the quirks of seniority. Merit, talent and professionalism should be the sole criteria. The Indian armed forces must throw up the best leadership. We owe it to the nation.*****      

By the kind courtesy of 

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