Lt Gen Raj Kadyan (Retd)
Former Deputy Chief of Army Staff
In India, there is nary an issue that remains without controversy. Thus far matters military had been kept out of public debate. That seems to be changing, and sadly so. Even sadder is the fact that most comments come from the ill-informed.
The announcement on 17 Dec of Lt General Bipin Rawat taking over as the next Army Chief, has raised an unfortunate storm. The issue needs to be examined dispassionately.
Defence Services have a very steep promotional hierarchy. Statistically, only one among some 3,000 officers getting commissioned, rises to the General's rank and becomes the Army Chief. Over the years the ascent has become only steeper. In 1947 when India had a 2.5 Lakh Army, we had one General. Today, the Army has increased nearly five-fold, but we still have one General. This makes the environment fiercely competitive.
There are very stringent selection boards at different ranks. The existing contenders would have gone through five such boards. After one reaches the rank of Lt General, there is no more selection. Those few with requisite residual service become Corps commanders and out of these still fewer become Army commanders, who are 'fit in all respects and have minimum two years residual service'.
The seniority among peers is not mathematical but is based on the merit list drawn on commissioning, resulting out of one's performance during the long period of training. The seniority is reflected through the individual service number. Over the period it has been examined whether the seniority should be re-fixed after every selection board - commonly referred to as 'deep' selection - but the same has not been accepted.
The army chief is promoted out of the Army commanders and the Vice Chief; the posts being equal and interchangeable. There is no rule laid down for appointing an army chief. It is left to the discretion of the government.
Profiles of the top few contenders are scrutinised by the Appointments Committee of the Cabinet. The ACC, comprising the Prime Minister, the Home Minister and the Defence Minister takes a final call. The ACC thus virtually functions as a selection board.
Having come up the hard way, all army commanders are equally competent to be promoted. The difference may be only in their exposure and experience in the diverse Indian terrain and operational deployment. This, when related to the prevailing security scenario may become one of the factors that would impact the government decision. Secondly, the army chief, apart from being the head of the Service, is also a link between the force and the government. He has to deal with politicians, bureaucracy, finance, media, etc. The government would prefer someone with whom the working equation can be smooth and harmonious. There have been unfortunate instances where the Service chief and the political leadership remained divergent, even openly adversarial, leading to an unhealthy situation. That needs to be avoided.
Army is a human organisation. No human system can be totally free from subjective considerations. These can only be minimised, not totally eliminated. Whatever system one adopts will have its pros and cons.
In many democracies in the world, including USA, France, Germany etc, the army chief is selected without consideration of seniority. In India, the convention has been to appoint the senior most eligible contender. There have been few exceptions when a junior has been appointed, relatively more cases in Navy and Air Force. The seniority principle is the least controversial and suits young democracies where civil supremacy over the defence forces is still nascent.
Conceptually, responsibility and authority must go together. Since the government is responsible for national security, they must also have the authority to choose the head of their army. With the head of the government, along with two other senior ministers making the choice, their decision must be respected.
The controversy surrounding Lt Gen Bipin Rawat's appointment has invited some unfortunate comments, dragging even religion and regional factors. Such views betray ignorance of the totally secular and national character of our Army. The defence services in the past have been headed by Chiefs from different religions; Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, Christian, Parsi etc hailing from all parts of the country. Relevantly, when this writer was a cadet in the national Defence Academy, among the five layers of instructional staff, from Captain to Maj General, were a Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Sikh and Jew respectively. I never even realised it that time. But this reflects the essence of our Army.
Even more unfortunate is the intra-Army controversy where different branches of the army are sought to be compared, and this unfortunately by some of the veterans. The army chief is chosen from out of infantry, mechanised forces and artillery. The infantry is the largest and thus has a maximum number of officers. Of the total 26 chiefs so far, 14 have been from infantry, 7 from mechanised forces and 5 from artillery. The argument that a junior infantry officer is being appointed by side-lining a senior mechanised forces officer, is being buttressed by saying that there has been no chief from mechanised forces for nearly 19 years. The argument is flawed. First, reverse had happened in 1983 when a junior armoured corps officer was chosen sidelining a senior infantry officer. Second, in the 14 years from 1983 to 1997, of the total six army chiefs five were from mechanised forces and none from the infantry. It remained a non-issue because for the appointment of chief there is no quota system. It is just happenstance.