When the government appointed General Bipin Rawat as the new Army Chief, it triggered widespread debate as two of Gen. Rawat’s seniors were superseded in the selection. The debate also showed the importance of the appointment and the trust the people have in the armed forces. Here I must unequivocally emphasise that Gen. Bipin Rawat is an outstanding officer who will certainly lead the Army with distinction, just as the Army would be proud of being led by him. I wish him all the success. Having said that, let me also make it clear that the two passed-over Army Commanders have excellent records of service, and as stated by the Defence Minister himself, “their not being selected does not reflect on their performance”. Gen. Rawat’s special operation in Myanmar in 2015 and admirable performance as Vice Chief of Army Staff during the ‘surgical strike’ last year, among other achievements, helped him clinch the position.
In careers spanning four decades or so, it is inevitable that some will have more exposure to certain conditions than others. This despite the fact that officers above the level of Brigadier are exposed to various sectors and operational situations and acquire the experience and qualifications to handle all kinds of assignments. It would also be churlish to imagine rivalry between the Infantry and the Armoured Corps just because an infanteer has been nominated as the Chief. At this high level, to which arm you belong is not a crucial factor because all arms are equally important and have their roles cut out. One can never replace the other.
Service chiefs have to possess incisive vision and have deep insights into the broader politico-strategic complexities both at the national and international levels. Exercising acumen at a tactical level or having experience in one particular arm cannot be a criterion for appointment as the nation’s top military commander. Therefore, in all fairness, it is assumed that the government, even while departing from the normal convention of going by seniority, has taken the decision which in its judgment is best for the nation. It is therefore time to move on.
Seniority and merit
Notwithstanding that, people within and outside the armed forces are concerned that the time-tested principle of seniority should not be overlooked unless merit is overwhelmingly in favour of an officer lower down in the hierarchy. The tricky issue here is, how does the government weigh merit without playing favourites? An apolitical ethos of the services has been one of the strongest pillars of our democracy. Any possibility of senior commanders currying favour with the political leadership would therefore be fraught with grave risks for the nation and its military. Such a possibility must not be allowed to influence the selection of the Army Chief. This is an absolute sine qua non.
Appointment of Army Commanders
The appointment of Army Commanders has a direct bearing on the selection of the Chief, as service chiefs are selected from amongst them. The changing nature of war today covers a spectrum of conflict — nuclear, information, cyber, space, etc. It is inevitable, therefore, that the Indian armed forces are going through phenomenal changes in terms of modernisation of weapons, combat systems, and strategic application of military power. The Army Commander’s role in this entire gambit is pivotal. Besides commanding all the forces across the whole of Jammu and Kashmir, Rajasthan, the Northeast, and other places, Army Commanders also participate in national-level decision-making over strategic, operational, training, equipment, personnel administration and logistic and financial issues. This is a huge set of responsibilities.
It is obvious then that we should introspect whether we are selecting the most meritorious as Army Commanders and fielding only the best candidates for the selection of a Chief.
There are two criteria to be fulfilled to be elevated to the position of Army Commander: an excellent command of a corps, the highest operational formation, and, in the interest of meaningful stability and continuity in this key appointment, eligible candidates must have two years of residual service before appointment (more or less similar criteria apply to the other two services). With these criteria being satisfied, Army Commanders are nominated in the order of seniority. Those who do not fulfil these criteria become ineligible and move out to other appointments till their superannuation. At any given time, there could be approximately 14 incumbent corps commanders and approximately five or six more who may have just moved out of their command and who would also be considered to fill vacancies of four or five Army Commanders annually. This would result in only the best being selected.
Till now, the mandatory requirement of two years of service and seniority at the time of vacancy has resulted in routine elevations to the appointment of Army Commander, merit not being considered. The logic was that all officers who had reached that level were considered competent and there was no need to introduce unnecessary competition among them. But in light of contemporary responsibilities and the increasing importance of jointness and stretch of warfare, only the best are needed as Army Commanders.
Need for reform
The existing policy is therefore anomalous, wherein for promotion to this level the primary criterion is not merit unlike for all other ranks. Henceforth, the selection of Army Commanders must be made only through deep selection.
We could consider reducing the stipulation of tenancy of two years to 18 months (it is already one and a half years in the Air Force and one year in the Navy) to widen the number of eligible candidates. As regards the selection process, the three service chiefs (four when a Chief of Defence Staff or permanent Chairman of Chief of Staff Committee is introduced) could constitute the selection board, with the chief of the service concerned presiding. A final recommendation could then be sent to the government for approval, as in the cases of select ranks.
Some other suggestions, such as selection by a triumvirate comprising the Prime Minister, Chief Justice of India and Leader of the Opposition are not relevant in a system so conditioned by exclusive military insight and stringent professional scrutiny at every stage. Military chiefs cannot be selected by just going through dossiers.
The time has come to introduce this pressing reform in the process of selection of Army Commanders. The present government is known for its ability to take decisions. It would do well to introduce this reform as it would make available to it a very competent set of professionals from which it can appoint its service chiefs. This will also leave no requirement whatsoever to bypass the seniority criterion, as all eligible candidates will be exceedingly competent.
General Nirmal Chander Vij is a former Army Chief and is currently Director, Vivekananda International Foundation.