The government's decision to appoint the next army chief of India by discounting the seniority of not one but two officers in the hierarchy presents wide ramifications.
Any out-of-turn appointment at the top level, on professed grounds of merit or otherwise, is unsettling and questionable, especially if it concerns the armed forces where the leadership has vital responsibilities for national security and looks to a cohesive force to execute its mandate.
While Rawat's competence is indisputable, were his two seniors less so? Would the Indian Army have been the poorer with Gen. Bakshi at its head?
The government deviated from the practice of selecting the senior-most eligible officer by appointing Lieutenant General Bipin Rawat as the 26th Chief of Army Staff (CoAS) to succeed General Dalbir Singh Suhag who retires on 31 December. Both officers are from Gorkha Rifles, a Gorkha infantry regiment of the Indian Army, Singh having been commissioned into the 4th battalion of the 5 Gorkha Rifles on 16 June 1974 and Rawat joining the 5th battalion of the 11 Gorkha Rifles on 16 December 1978.
The line of succession was changed by bypassing Eastern Army Commander, Lt. Gen. Praveen Bakshi, and Southern Army Commander, Lt. Gen. P.M. Hariz. Bakshi belongs to the Armoured Corps, having been assigned to the Skinner's Horse cavalry regiment in December 1977, while Hariz was delegated on 10 June 1978 to the Mechanised Infantry Battalion 16 MAHAR (PARA). Incidentally, Hariz succeeded Rawat on 1 September on assuming his post of General Officer Commanding-in-Chief of the Indian Army's Southern Command. Rawat moved to the army headquarters as Vice-Chief of the Army Staff.
There had previously been only one such supersession in the Indian Army, in 1983; a similar move earlier, in 1974, was not technically a supersession. Both were effected by then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. In 1974, she extended Army chief Gen. G.G. Bewoor's tenure, owing to which his next in line, Lt. Gen. Premindra Singh Bhagat, reached his retirement. Bhagat, who had earned a Victoria Cross from World War II, has been considered one of India's finest soldiers, but Gandhi and her government were wary of his outspokenness and felt he would be a difficult army chief to deal with. It was for the same reason that Gandhi superseded Lt. Gen. S.K. Sinha with Gen. A.S. Vaidya in 1983, despite Sinha's impeccable credentials as an outstanding scholar-warrior with deep regard for his servicemen.
Though the selection of a service chief is the prerogative of the government of India, where the civilian administration exercises control over the armed forces, seniority has largely been the natural course for promotion. After all, the military structure itself delineates seniority in accordance with one's merit and experience, unless one is victimised or sidelined by a superior along the way.
There are normally 18 officers of the rank of Lt. Gen. in the general cadre at any time, including the vice chief, two deputy chiefs and the seven general officers commanding-in-chief (army commanders) of the Northern, Eastern, Western, Central, Southern, South Western, and Training Army Commands. It is one amongst them who becomes the CoAS to head the 1.13 million-strong army.
In the Indian context where civilian control over the military is all too visible, "competence" can be grossly subjective and can perpetuate a regime of patronage.
Though the President is constitutionally the Supreme Commander of India's Armed Forces, he does not actively appoint service chiefs, but acts only on the advice of the Union Council of Ministers headed by the Prime Minister. It is the Appointments Committee of the Cabinet (ACC)—that includes the concerned minister, in this instance the Defence Minister—which makes the final selection based upon inputs provided by the ministry and service headquarters.
Responding to criticism over the supersession of the two senior-most commanders, the government let it be known that the selection was based purely on merit, irrespective of the corps to which the officer originally belonged, and that due process had been followed. It explained that it made the final decision on the most suitable officer based on various aspects of the current and projected security situation in the country.
Deeming the key requirements in the prevailing security environment to be counter-terrorism, counter-insurgency and high-altitude warfare, the committee reviewed the background and operational experience of the senior-most officers to eventually select Rawat who fulfilled these criteria. He has been Commanding Officer of 19 Infantry Division in Uri and Brigade Commander of 5 Sector Rashtriya Rifles in Sopore along the Line of Control (LOC) in the northern sector, and has commanded an infantry battalion along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) at Kibithu (in Arunachal Pradesh) and Headquarters 3 Corps in Dimapur, in Nagaland, in the eastern sector.
While Rawat's competence is indisputable, were his two seniors less so—enough to warrant their supersession? Would the Indian Army have been the poorer with Gen. Bakshi at its head? Incidentally, Bakshi too has professional experience in both the northern and eastern sectors, having been Chief of Staff of the Northern Command at Udhampur prior to his appointment as Eastern Army Commander.
His supersession also sets a precedent by which senior officers might seek out postings on the LoC and LaC to be eligible to serve as army chief. Such an aspiration will bring in the possibility of manipulation of the civilian or military leadership to influence a favourable decision. There is also the fear that the selection can sharpen the divide between the infantry and other arms in the army.
Besides, the army's writ over the LoC or LaC is only in times of war, the defence of our frontiers during peacetime being the purview of the Border Security Force (BSF). Lately, this paramilitary force, established in 1965 under the Ministry of Home Affairs, is also being deployed for counter insurgency duties.
Supersession also sets a precedent by which senior officers might seek out postings on the LoC and LaC to be eligible to serve as army chief.
It is argued that the senior-most army officer is not necessarily the most competent one. But in the Indian context where civilian control over the military is all too visible, "competence" can be grossly subjective and can perpetuate a regime of patronage. It would jeopardise military morale if prospective officers focus their time and attention on "managing" the system to ensure their eventual selection for the top post and if their superior officers, in turn, craft their progress by marginalising likely challengers. It is not without reason that supersessions have been so rare, and one can always question if the Indian army had in any way become deficient under a chief appointed through seniority.
There is speculation that after overlooking Gen. Bakshi for the top post, the government might nominate him as India's first Chief of Defence Staff (CDS). Such a move would not only be interpreted as a consolation for the sidelined officer, but would also raise the question as to how an officer whose credentials were deemed wanting in gaining him the natural promotion could be considered qualified for a rank of strategic significance. Such developments could be perceived as politicising a sensitive agency.
There is also the fear that the selection can sharpen the divide between the infantry and other arms in the army.
The last supersession in the Indian Army, in 1983, had led Gen. Sinha to put in his papers, but Gen. Bakshi—or even Gen. Hariz for that matter—may not do likewise. Gen. Bakshi for one has continued with his daily routine and also urged his staff to remain focused on their work and not be affected by extraneous issues.
It is unknown what transpired at the post-supersession meeting Gen. Bakshi had with Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar, who incidentally had flown back to Delhi for this purpose from Goa where he had been campaigning for the assembly elections.
There are murmurs within serving and retired ranks in the army that while the government of the day can select a service chief it desires, the military cannot do likewise with its civilian leadership. They ask why the Defence Minister, who was doing so well as the Chief Minister (CM) of Goa, needed to be shifted to his present post in New Delhi from a state and job that were so dear to him. Indeed, in an interview in a local newspaper in his home state, Manohar Parrikar mentioned that Goa's capital of Panaji—that he had represented in the legislative assembly—was the city closest to his heart and that "Delhi is the necessity of my job". Opposition parties have also asked him to "safeguard India's borders" rather than spending time in Goa as a "super-CM".