The choice of service chiefs is a matter of political judgment
The choice of Lieutenant General Bipin Rawat as the next army chief has created a flutter in the military establishment. The passing over of two senior army commanders is a rare occurrence. As several commentators have pointed out, the last time it happened was in 1983 when Indira Gandhi elevated General Arun Vaidya over Lieutenant General SK Sinha (who promptly resigned). But this was not the only instance. In 1957, Jawaharlal Nehru chose General KS Thimayya superseding two senior lieutenant generals, Sant Singh and Kalwant Singh (the latter stayed on, while the former resigned).
This time around, there is apparently the possibility that Lieutenant General Praveen Bakshi may yet be appointed as the first chief of defence staff (CDS) or some equivalent designation: The single-point military adviser to the defence minister. While this outcome may be comforting to the Indian Army, it will entail passing over the current navy chief — the senior-most of the chiefs — for the post.
Whatever the outcome, this episode has triggered a much-needed discussion on the selection of service chiefs. The seniority principle’s downsides are evident. Between two officers from the same course, for instance, seniority is determined based on their ranking in the military academy decades ago. Few will dispute the fact that this has any relevance to their performance at the apex of the military system, but the principle remains in place. The case for adhering to seniority has been made on three grounds.
First, seniority is held to be best guarantee against politicisation of top appointments. Do we want the military to go the way of the police where promotions and postings routinely depend on political favour? This is a rhetorically strong argument, but the comparison is flawed and misleading. It overlooks the fact that the police’s nature and function in politics is very different from that of the army.
The concern about politicisation also overlooks the important issue of effectiveness. The institutional design of civil-military relations always entails a trade-off between democratic control and effectiveness. In privileging the former by emphasising seniority, we have long overlooked the demands of military efficacy. Even the staunchest advocates of the seniority principle would be hard pressed to deny that it periodically gives us mediocrity at the top. In fact, their case would be strengthened if they conceded the importance of efficacy, but pointed out that overlooking seniority does not guarantee better outcomes either. The choice of Thimayya resulted in the most serious standoff between an army chief and the government, when the former publicly resigned only to retract soon after. And under Vaidya the army undertook the most controversial military operation since Independence: Operation Blue Star.
The second argument in the case for seniority is the absence of any objective criterion of “merit” in choosing service chiefs. While superficially correct, this too elides over deeper problems. The promotion of military officers at lower levels is not “objective” just because it is decided by service boards. Every officer knows that the annual confidential reports that play such an important role in their careers are highly subjective assessments. No amount of quantification of these reports can take away from their inherent subjectivity. The idea that there can be clearly laid benchmarks of “merit” in appointing chiefs beggars belief. Thoughtful retired officers have suggested something akin to a collegium system for the selection of chiefs. While such a system may ensure broader consensus, it will also impinge on the prerogative of the executive.
The third, and strongest, case for seniority is the fact that our political leadership does not interact enough with senior military commanders to be able to make an informed call. This stems from the longstanding practice of the political leadership steering clear of operational matters. Obviously, the flip side is also true: Few of our senior officers have any exposure to policy-making. Unless this problem is remedied from both ends, top military appointments — especially if a CDS is instituted — will remain a case of the blind choosing the blind.
The current episode also raises the question of what kind of operational experience is relevant to service chiefs. The Line of Control with Pakistan may be hot right now, but why do we have the corps commanders and the Northern Army commander if the chief’s personal experience is supposed to count for so much? What about his relative lack of experience, say, with mechanised formations in the plains? The army chief is the “chief of the army staff”: His primarily role ought to be as chief of the staff rather than operational commander. The point will acquire greater salience as we move towards a CDS structure.
The privileging of particular kinds of operational experience is problematic for two further reasons. It may give us service chiefs who are equipped to fight the last war rather than the next one. It also vitiates the idea of a “general cadre” in senior ranks. Already the post of army chief is effectively closed off to officers who are not from the fighting arms. Introducing an infantry versus armoured corps dimension would be unfortunate — especially in the context of recent litigation about vacancies for officers from various branches.
The choice of service chiefs is a matter of political judgment. It involves multiple trade-offs and considerations that cannot be wished away by sticking to seniority or hankering after criteria of “merit”. But as with all political judgments it will be open to public scrutiny.
Srinath Raghavan is senior fellow, Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi
The views expressed are personal