Review: Assault on Merit
India's security will be in jeopardy unless the nation's political class, backed by a compliant bureaucracy, "gets its act together and vigorously desists from sacrificing the merit system and the army rules at the altar of favouritism and nepotism", a new book on civil-military relations says.
The alternative is a situation in which India's security would go into the hands of "uniformed guardians perhaps less than qualified to hold the posts to which they have been promoted", noted lawyer R.K. Anand wrote in "Assault on Merit" (Har-Anand Publications, Rs.495, 198 pages) that was released here Friday night by the Indian Army Chief, Gen. V.K. Singh.
The book wonders how a "line of succession" could be established "in a system that is so steeped in merit, where each and every soldier is being judged and evaluated at each and every step".
"The acknowledged 'line of succession' adopted by the government of India basically means that an officer has already been earmarked for the COAS's job even before he has commanded a division. This has made a complete mockery of the system," says the book, which has been edited by veteran journalist Inderjit Badhwar and has contributions from military historian and filmmaker Kunal Verma.
While the book does not specifically deal with the messy controversy involving Gen. Singh's date of birth, "the issues it addresses have a frighteningly similar ring as well as a lasting relevance: The state and morale of the armed forces", Anand says in the preface.
In this sense, the book is the first authoritative account of Gen. Singh's controversy against the larger backdrop of what is termed "the stage-management of promotions, transfers and postings".
The book deals with more than a dozen real-life case studies covering the last decade. Most of these involve major generals, lieutenant generals, corps commanders and army commanders who, Anand says, "were at the receiving end of malice and injustice from babus and politicians".
Verma puts this in another perspective.
"The whole gamut of the civil-military relationship needs to be examined in depth. It is time that our political class came to terms with a simple truth - the armed forces are unlikely to stage a coup in this country - so they might as well get that monkey off their backs and get on with some serious introspection. It is not the bureaucracy but the political class that represents the civil supremacy as the elected representatives of the people," Verma says in the final chapter titled "Conclusions and Recommendations".
"Professionals have to be allowed to run the ministry of defence. The railways have successfully adopted and stuck to that model, so why can't the armed forces do it too? This would also help distribute the large number of armed forces personnel who desperately need to be absorbed in a productive manner," Verma says.
"The promotion boards and the system have to be made completely transparent. Any attempt at manipulation must be dealt with ruthlessly," Verma noted.
What is Gen. Singh's take on the issue?
"What we need for the future is a 360 degree evaluation by superior officers, peers and subordinates of the ability of an officer to lead. Only then will we be able to wholly judge the ability of an officer to lead in adversity," he said at the book launch.
At the same time, Gen. Singh noted that the "sole ambition" of an Indian Army officer was to command the battalion he was commissioned into. "Everything else is a bonus," he added.
Gen. Singh retires May 31. He had for long been demanding that his date of birth be rectified from May 10, 1950, to May 10, 1951. He went all the way to the Supreme Court, but the government would have none of it, forcing him to back off.
Just days before his retirement, Gen. Singh finds himself in the midst of a raging storm over a show cause notice for a blotched operation in the northeast issued to Lieutenant General B.S. Suhag, who is slated to succeed the army chief designate, Lieutenant General Bikram Singh.
Gen. Singh defended this Friday, saying: "There is no vindictiveness involved. The show cause notice was issued on facts. It is for the officer to reply on moral grounds and not go running to the media."