The COAS Controversy Shows Need For Reform In Army

The government needs to ensure that senior positions in the army don’t seem like they’re the result of political patronage.

WrittenBy:Lt Gen H S Panag
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“Hail to the chief who in triumph advances,” wrote Sir Walter Scott in ‘The Lady of the Lake’. And we say the same to Lt Gen Bipin Rawat, AVSM, YSM, SM, VSM, who will assume the duties as the 26th Chief of Army Staff (COAS) on January 1, 2017. We hail him, salute him and support him to lead the Indian Army (IA) for the next three years to ensure external and internal security of India, to carry out much-needed structural, organisational, moral and human resource development reforms; and to influence the government to reform the higher defence management, formulate a formal National Security Strategy and the dependent Force Development Strategy. A very tall order indeed, but we hope that he will remain steadfast and succeed.

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Unfortunately, Rawat begins his tenure under controversial circumstances with respect to his selection. He has ‘on merit’ (as decided by the government) superseded two seniors, Lt Gen Bakshi and Lt Gen Hariz. Though the principle of selection is ‘merit cum seniority’, seniority has been violated only once before in 1983 when Gen Vaidya superseded Lt Gen Sinha – a controversy that lingers till date. There is no doubt that it is the prerogative of the government to select the COAS based on the principle of ‘merit cum seniority’. However, given the universal perception of our political culture in which merit at this level is influenced by ‘political jan-pehchan‘, the principle of seniority has remained pre-eminent.

The Opposition, which plays no role in the selection, raised a hue and cry, accusing the government of parochialism and politicisation of the Armed Forces.

The opinion among the retired and serving defence officers is divided in favour of seniority and ‘relative merit’. Regimental and arm loyalties also came to the fore. The government responded by specifically highlighting Rawat’s relative merit vis a vis other contenders. This was needless, as given the limited knowledge of the government as far as military matters go, most arguments were easily defeated. As a result, this move only generated more controversy and suspicion. Having decided to use its prerogative of relying upon ‘relative merit’, the best response would have been that the government has selected the first among equals for the coveted post, without going into any further details.

There were a lot of expectations from this government for transformational reforms in respect of National Security Strategy, higher defence management, structure, organisation and stagnant modernisation of the Armed Forces. So far, the actions of the government in this regard have not inspired any confidence and are more notable for exploitation of the Armed Forces for political mileage. Political rhetoric and jingoism shown after the Special Forces raids in Myanmar and across the Line of Control are just cases in point. A halo has been put around the Armed Forces and their criticism for gross inefficiency and lapses in safeguarding their bases and installations, has been termed as anti-national.

Be that as it may, the controversial decision of the government may be the harbinger of long overdue reforms, albeit by default, with respect to the appraisal and selection system within the Armed Forces and selection of officers for the senior appointments by the government.

All the Generals who were contenders for post of the COAS are well known to me. Some have been my students at the Indian Military Academy and Defence Services Staff College and served under my command. Others I know by reputation. All are thorough professionals, having come up through a tough pyramidical selection system – whatever be its infirmities – to become Army Commanders. Rather than examine this controversy based on their relative merit or seniority, I will focus on the analysis of the current system of selection, its shortcomings and the way forward. More so, when apart from the COAS, the government also approves all selections for promotion to the rank of Colonel and above, done by the Armed Forces. The promotion to the rank of Major General and above are approved by the Appointments Committee of the Cabinet. I will restrict the discussion to the army but the same applies to other two services with minor variations.

The Existing System

As things stand, three to four months before the retirement of the present incumbent, the Ministry of Defence calls for the dossiers of the five next senior officers or even all the Army Commanders and the Vice Chief of Army Staff. No formal recommendations are sought from the COAS, but at times, informal inputs may be taken by the Raksha Mantri (RM). The file is then prepared by the dealing Joint Secretary who carries out a comparative analysis of merit, based on the dossiers. The file goes up the chain to the Defence Secretary, who puts it up to the RM. No recommendations are made at this stage, but factual comparative analysis based on the dossiers is placed on record. It goes without saying that operational experience, appointment profile and qualities highlighted in the pen pictures are placed on record. An Intelligence Bureau check is carried out for adverse and reportable information with respect to character and reputation. The file is then move to various members of the Appointments Committee of the Cabinet who place their views and recommendations on record. The government as such has not laid down any appointment specific competency requirements and qualifications. Thus, subjectivity based on individual perceptions prevails. Finally, the file goes to the Prime Minister who takes the final decision in consultation with the other members. The principle of ‘merit cum seniority’ is supposedly followed.

This system suffers from a number of infirmities:

  • There is no clear-cut criteria or specific competency requirements and qualifications specified for the post of the COAS. Thus, the judgement becomes subjective. More so, when no detailed appraisal is done within the army for the Army Commanders.
  • The system of appraisal within the army is flawed, due to inflated reports because of lack of moral courage of the initiating officers, lack of objectivity, prevalence of regimental and arm parochialism, and weakness in the character of the assessing officers. A lot of this has to do with the leadership development and character of the officer corps as a whole, which is well below the ideal.
  • Over a period of time, some CsOAS and the Army Commanders have played a dubious role by promoting their prodigies, regimental and arm officers. They manipulate the postings, appointments and even promotions of the favoured ones, indirectly influencing the ‘dossier merit’ as future contenders. At times, even the selection to the rank of Lt Gen is manipulated, particularly when based on commissioning merit, date of birth and seniority, he could be a future contender for the coveted post of the COAS.
  • The posting or experience profile of an officer is vacancy-driven and decided by Army Headquarters. It is therefore not fair to decide merit based on specific experience.
  • Higher command requires intellect, vision and will to execute. Experience only forms a backdrop.
  • The government has no inputs other than what is available in the dossier and the IB report. Thus, it entirely relies upon the inputs from the service headquarters in the absence of its own specific competency requirements and qualifications for the post of the COAS. What is given in the dossier is an appraisal of the officer up to the rank of Lt Gen and appointment of Corps Commander, which has little to do with the job of the COAS. No appraisal is carried out of the Army Commanders.
  • The RM has very little knowledge of the Army Commanders. There is no formal system of interviewing the prospective candidates. Visits by PM/RM are more ‘meet and greet’ affairs and less to assess the potential of prospective candidates.

Keeping the above in view, in absence of a clear-cut criteria or policy on merit and the backdrop of political interference leading to the debacle of 1962, most governments stuck to the principle of seniority. Merit was left to the steep pyramidical selection within the Armed Forces. It is a safe and non-controversial system. Once it is known that a particular officer is in line as a Maj Gen/Lt Gen for the post of the COAS, he is groomed by the Army Headquarters/COAS  by giving him varied command and staff experience.

This was done in respect of Gen Bakshi, wherein he was given the command of 9 Corps (though he himself had requested for an operational cops in the North East), which looks after the area from Chenab River to Pathankot, falling mostly in Jammu and Kashmir and involves both conventional defence and counter-terrorist operations. He was then posted as Chief of Staff of Northern Command to get top-end experience of the Fourth Generation War in Jammu and Kashmir and Line of Actual Control in Ladakh. He opted to command the Eastern Command instead of the Western Command for first-hand experience of the Line of Actual Control and counter-insurgency in the North East. His last logical posting should have been as the Vice Chief of the Army Staff to familiarise himself with policy matters and the functioning of the Army Headquarters/Ministry of Defence in September this year. Thus, there could not have been a better prepared person for the post of the COAS than him, based on the principle of seniority.

The Way Forward

Let us be clear, the government must have a Chief who is most meritorious and who will best execute its defence policy, National Security Strategy and Transformation Strategy. In order to select the best man on merit, the prerequisites for the appointment must be clear and unambiguous.

In my view, even among equals as selected within the service, there exists relative merit, keeping in view the competency requirements and qualification for the post of the COAS, which as per my perception are given below :

  • Capacity to provide best advice to the RM, PM and the Cabinet Committee for Security with candour and forthrightness and more importantly, the moral courage to disagree when required before a final decision is taken.
  • A wide-ranging intellect with broad knowledge of strategic and military affairs, understanding of the constitution and government functioning beyond military matters, and backed by a broad-based varied command, staff and operational experience as a higher formation commander (division and above).
  • Ability and will to execute the National Security strategy and Transformation Strategy; create and sustain the deterrent decided by the government; and to lead intellectually and managerially his subordinate commanders for the same.
  • Tolerance for complexity and ambiguity.
  • A man of character with impeccable integrity, moral courage, communication skills and bearing with a strong sense of ethics and trustworthiness – a role model for his service and the country.
  • At international fora and in military diplomacy, his personality must be worthy of admiration. The adversaries must hold him in awe.
  • Believe in civil government supremacy, have credibility with the public, media and parliament, and compatibility with the RM and the PM.

The specific competencies and qualifications must be formalised by the government, based on the recommendations of an appropriate committee.

In order to have a genuine merit and seniority-based selection system based on the above competencies and qualifications, a de novo look is require at the entire system.

  • The RM must be more actively involved in the selection process for senior commanders and the COAS. This is best done by a Senior Officers Management Committee, consisting of the RM, CDS (when appointed), COAS and the Defence Secretary assisted by the staff. The setting up of an independent permanent board headed by a retired COAS may also be considered. The final decision must rest with the RM.
  • The selection system must dig deep and identify capable officers at the level of Brigadiers or Major Generals who have the potential for higher command. These officers must be groomed by giving them varied command and staff experience by design and not by default. This must be overseen by the Senior Officers Management Committee/Board.
  • The Senior Officers Management Committee/Board must evolve a formal system of assessing the potential of prospective candidates for the appointment of Corps Commanders, principal staff officers and Army Commanders and the COAS, based on specific competencies and qualifications formulated for each appointment. Formal interactive interviews should be held.
  • The final recommendations after formal approval of the RM must then put up to the Cabinet Committee for Appointments and final selection made by the PM
  • Needless to mention that for this process to function, radical reforms will be required to the existing appraisal and selection system within the Army. The RM must closely monitor this aspect through the Senior Officers Management Committee/Board.

The government must shed ego, draw lessons from this controversy and initiate reforms to establish a genuine ‘merit cum seniority’ based system for selection of not only the COAS, but also other senior appointments which are approved by the Appointments Committee of the Cabinet.  Any ambiguity in this regard will lead to the politicisation of the army hierarchy. In future, the accepted norm would be that all other things being equal, political patronage will ensure success. But before this, the government must carry out higher defence management reforms, formulate a National Security Strategy and lay down a time-bound Transformation Strategy. No purpose will be served if we lay down elaborate specific competencies and qualifications for the Chiefs if all that they have to do is to sustain status quo.

Last but not least, to partially undo the damage done to the Indian Army, the government should make use of the two eminent, superseded generals either in the proposed higher defence management structure or at any other appropriate level. It would be unfair to make them serve under a junior. Their loss of honour because of an ambiguous selection process, if not restored, will have an adverse effect on the morale of the Indian Army.

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