There are no written rules for the appointment of an army chief. The rulebook says the chief will be appointed by the government. Nobody can challenge the government’s prerogative constitutionally or legally.
Having said that, every decision that the government takes at this level, will have both positives and negatives. It doesn’t happen on the basis of personal whims and fancies. The process is supervised by the appointments committee of the cabinet (ACC), which virtually amounts to a selection board. The ACC has three members: the PM, the Home Minister and the Defence Minister. All of them give their recommendations on the candidate. The profiles of the officers in contention are compared. There are notings from the cabinet secretary and defence secretary and the Home Secretary on the file before it goes to the PMO. All these factors are taken into account.
In our highly competitive Army, anyone who reaches the rank of Lieutenant General, having been screened by five stringent selection boards, has the competence to handle the top job. The only difference may be in their respective exposure and experience. By convention we have been mostly following the seniority principle when it comes to the appointment of the army chief. On the positive side it means there is no ambiguity or uncertainty in the line of succession. On the flip side, the moment a person becomes a lieutenant general, he will know his future prospects. The one who is in the run for Chief may tend to play safe. The others who are not in the run may slacken off and their motivation level may drop. This is human nature.
If on the contrary, the government follows the principle of selection from among one of the army commanders and vice chief, then all these candidates remain motivated enough to try for the premier post. The negative is that the government keeps the carrot dangling till the last minute, which may lead to some unhealthy cut-throat competition among the higher echelons.
What would have possibly influenced the government’s thinking is the present-day strategic and security scenario. As we know, on the western front India has a very violent border; more than 60 soldiers have been martyred this year alone. On the north-eastern side with China, the border is again turbulent and disputed. There are numerous incursions that take place. Obviously, somebody who has had experience of serving in both these environments would have an edge and would be relatively better placed.
With the proxy war that has been happening for decades, the Kashmir operations are mostly infantry-based. General Bipin Rawat has commanded a brigade and a division in the Valley. He has also served in Arunachal Pradesh on the Chinese border. That having been said the government would have also considered some other factors. In the past the convention of seniority has been violated in the Army and more often in the air force and the navy. It needs to be remembered that the Army is the only organisation that is totally secular and apolitical. It is in the national interest to keep it such. Any speculation that someone was overlooked because of his religious background, as some media reports have hinted, is simply irresponsible talk. I can vouch that the Indian Army is the most secular force in the world. .
In a democracy opposition parties have a right to question the government, but they should keep in mind that they should be discreet in the subjects they choose. The Armed Forces should not be used as a tool to hit the government with. The moment the government gives a justification, as the opposition parties are demanding, they are likely to start questioning that very justification. Any Member of Parliament, who is genuinely keen to know, should walk into the defence minister’s office and ask him the same, in confidence. Why rake it up in the media?
As I said all three people who were in contention for the chief’s post are competent. The very fact they have reached there shows that their competence is not in question. Only the experience is different. The other two officers – Lt Gen Praveen Bakshi and Lt Gen PM Hariz belong to the mechanised forces. Their experience would be greater in the plains of Punjab and Rajasthan. They may not have commanded troops in Jammu and Kashmir. That might be the difference..
Kashmir today is a reality. A conventional war is a hypothetical scenario. From all indications there should be no conventional war. We don’t need it and Pakistan cannot afford it. Nor is there a chance of a war with China. They are developing their economy. Also, the Chinese are a patient people. They don’t want a solution to an issue overnight. They can wait for decades.
Secondly, if you actually examine the role of the army chief, he is not strictly a commander. When we got Independence, we had the post of commander-in-chief who was the head of all three defence services. In the 1950s, the government changed it to chief of army staff. ‘Staff’ itself means he isn’t heading the command. The actual command finishes at the army commander’s level. The chief is the link between the defence forces and the government. He must be able to reconcile contradictions that inevitably exist in the system and get along with the political class. He should be able to deal with the administrative and financial bureaucracy. The government must also have a comfort level with him. Unfortunately, we have had situations where the chief was in confrontation with the government. I am sure no one wants a repeat of that unhappy experience.
. (as told to Aasheesh Sharma)
Lieutenant General Raj Kadyan is a former Deputy Chief of Army Staff