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There's Something Very Wrong With How We Are Selecting Our Army Chiefs

Gen Bipin Rawat’s Appointment as army chief is just a symptom.

21/12/2016 3:32 PM IST | Updated 22/12/2016 8:44 AM IST
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General Bipin Rawat.

General Bipin Rawat has been appointed by the Government of India as the next Chief of Army Staff, superseding two army commanders who have greater seniority. Usually the position of army chief goes to the senior most serving army commander at the time of retirement of the incumbent. However, Gen Rawat was the third in terms of seniority after the Eastern Army Commander, Lt Gen Pravin Bakshi, and the Southern Army Commander, Lt Gen P M Hariz. This appointment, thus, has been unprecedented and has drawn a lot of flak from the opposition for bearing political hues.

In the past, the government has superseded the senior most officer in the chain of command for consideration to the post of chief in the armed forces, but never before have two officers been superseded. The most notable of such instances was when Gen S K Sinha was superseded to make way for Gen A S Vaidya, two months his junior, as the Chief of Army Staff in 1983. The clamour on Gen Vaidya's appointment then, bears resemblance to the current uproar. However, in a different time with a different geostrategic scenario, it is hard to tell if Gen Rawat's appointment is indeed warranted.

[T]he government should not base suitability by holding one turf as more important and holding that as the basis for selection of leading an army that functions across various turfs.

Is the appointment a positive disruption of the status quo, where Lt Gens are usually lulled into complacency against the backdrop of "automatic" succession? Or is it a heavy-handed power play by the government to stub any chance of dissidence from chiefs by placing the most complicit and accommodative person in power?

Time will tell the answer to those questions, but the present situation does sound a grim premonition to already deteriorating inter-arm relations. This is due to the fact that the potential successors Gen Pravin Bakshi Gen P M Hariz are from the armoured corps and Mechanised Infantry respectively. Gen Bipin Rawat, the final designate, is from the infantry, that too from the same "umbrella" regiment, the Gurkhas, as the current chief (Gen Suhag is from 5 Gurkha Regiment and Gen Rawat from 11 Gurkha Regiment). In the past two decades, two of the eight chiefs have been from corps of artillery, while the rest have been from the infantry. This infantry clout combined with an ardent attempt by the top brass and at the MoD to sideline officers from any other arms is striking a blow at the ethos of the Indian army. Such instances will only aggravate the fault lines, and call out officers among the corps to carry on their regimentation with much more zeal to protect their own.

The moment the announcement of the appointment of the next army chief was made, it created a flurry of diverse opinions among the veterans, with many expressing unhappiness at the example this selection is setting. While MoD Sources say that the selection has been based on merit and suitability, stating that Gen Rawat's operational experiences weigh more and are valuable to the ongoing Kashmir situation. However, the same can be said for Gen Pravin Bakshi who has been the Chief of Staff of the Northern Command, and has held staff appointments in the Eastern Sector. In a situation where one has to weigh one candidate's merit against another, especially when merit is based on performance in two different turfs, the government should not base suitability by holding one turf as more important and holding that as the basis for selection of leading an army that functions across various turfs. The question should not be whether the army should be pivoted towards asymmetric warfare and counter-insurgency ops or a conventional war setting. Moreover, the army chief sets the tone for strategic thinking by delegation—it is not a post defined by micromanagement.

[W]e will either keep getting a chief based on date of birth and seniority, or one whose merit is based on different criteria held by different governments.

The argument presented here only calls for better measures in selection, because in hindsight, the Cabinet Appointment Committee has never really shown much understanding of the qualitative factors of Command and Control in the Indian Army. Thus, believing that its decision now is prudent does not evoke much confidence. If the committee really did understand the nitty-gritties of operational command, it wouldn't politicise appointments at the army commander level. An example to that effect is the appointment of Gen Amarjeet Singh as the current DGMS. An officer with a good record who was credible enough to command a strike corps, and had enough residual service, was somehow not deemed capable enough to be an army commander. Similarly, Gen Subrata Saha, another outstanding officer with great operational experience and someone who was initially a contender for the post of DGMO was absorbed into the Army HQ Machinery as the Deputy Chief of Planning and Systems. Such cases, sadly, aren't exceptions to the showcase of myopic and uninformed dealings of the Cabinet Appointments Committee.

There is a serious need, not for sustained continuity of a system of seniority based selection of army chiefs, nor for a deeper selection based on selective criteria at the behest of the ruling party, but for a committee which brings in stakeholders for deliberation before selection. A committee that can bring in retired senior military officers, along with political representatives who can then better decide on the merit of contenders for the post of chief. Until then, we will either keep getting a chief based on date of birth and seniority, or one whose merit is based on different criteria held by different governments.

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