Impact of an unusual selection

Impact of an unusual selection

Anil Chait,
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At the outset, Lt. Gen. Bipin Rawat must be congratulated upon being appointed as the next Chief of the Army Staff. His rich experience, exposure and hoary regimental traditions will stand him in good stead as he assumes the mantle.

Lt. Gen. Rawat’s challenges are many. The most daunting will be to unite the institution, underlining a single ethos against the diverse aspirations of soldiers. He has the potential and time to do this.

Supersession of two very competent seniors for the appointment was bound to cause anguish and evoke strong reactions — not just about the abrogation of the rightful claims and expectations of the two officers but, more importantly, on the impact it would have on the apolitical nature of the Army. To this end, the elaborate justifications put forth on the part of the establishment and certain voices from the so-called strategic community have been unhelpful, and that is worrying.

The government’s prerogative to appoint the person who it considers most suitable in these circumstances, as has been done, is unfettered. But it should have been accompanied by transparency and logic.

Ability and seniority

In a hierarchical structure such as in the Army, command authority is based on the twin planks of superior professional ability and seniority. So far, the principle of selection has been seniority-cum-merit unless there are compelling reasons to select
otherwise. The selection is made from amongst serving Army Commanders and the Vice Chief of the Army Staff. The process involves filtering through over 37-38 years of national service. The basis for elevation are personal qualities, demonstrated performance and potential for next rank. Only one or two reach that position from a full-year batch. This is unlike any other system and therefore the merit factor is a
given.

Against this backdrop, there are four larger issues, all rooted in the existing operational and functional ethos that the selection raises.
They need to be addressed.

First, do the personal capabilities and experience of the person being selected completely overwhelm those of Lt. Gen. Praveen Bakshi and Lt. Gen. P.M. Hariz? After all, Lt. Gen. Bakshi is commander-in-chief of the Eastern Command, operationally pitted against a silent but ubiquitous Chinese threat alongside an insurgency that refuses to be quelled. He dealt with Samba and Jammu infiltration situations as a Corps Commander. For his part, Lt. Gen. Hariz has a reputation for his
penchant for concepts.

Basis for evaluation

What, therefore, is the basis for a comparative evaluation and from where should it start? If it was so relevant, why was this not done earlier? Incidentally, the officers are never consulted in their growing-up years on what qualities they need to possess to become suitable to lead the institution. Therefore, how will the present set of formation commanders in peace formation, stationed for deterring war, react after hearing that all things being equal, their future aspirations can only be addressed by acquiring the experience of handling counter-insurgency operations? Or how will the officers serving in the Eastern Command react to being told that their own
commander-in-chief’s experience is simply not good enough?

An officer’s career graph and experience are never of his own choosing. They follow a trajectory determined by the Military Secretary’s branch, and the officer can only accumulate experiential moss to the extent that he is allowed by the opportunities given to him. He has no choice. If the argument of not having the right experience is raised against a senior officer, to what extent is the affected officer liable for the same? Should he pay a price for being deprived of a posting that matches up to future requirements?

The second and more serious question that arises relates to the future battle space as visualised by the government and understood from the justifications of supersession. Would threats the nation faces remain static in the near term and at the ground level? If they change, then what? What if they change during the designate’s tenure?

Of late we have been talking of jointness, joint forces and joint responsibilities to attack the centre of gravity to produce desired effects. Can this ever work if the government of the day decides on a specialisation in the secondary field as the parameter for selection at the highest level? Can such a proposition ever attract talent in joint forces, which is still away from the main line of work?

Expectations of the government

The third question relates to the expectations of the government from its Army Chief. Is his role to provide overarching guidance and oversight to tactical-level operations or does he have a larger charter to prepare for battles that will hopefully never be fought? Is not all-around experience to be recognised as an attribute for selection?

And finally, to return to the principle of seniority-cum-merit that has so far stood the test of time, for a solution. The reason why the defence forces have remained apolitical so far is that this principle annulled any need to develop political patronage in spite of political control. If this continues, the days are not far when rising stars of
the armed forces will seek to curry political favours both through internal and external mechanisms for ticket punching to ensure that they get their due.

Either way, the apolitical fabric stands tattered and torn.

The net impact of this unusual selection and supersession is that a narrow tactical advantage has been seized by short-changing the needs of a comprehensive all-round perspective and understanding of future wars. This needs to change and change immediately.

Anil Chait is former Chief of Integrated Defence Staff. Published in The Hindu

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