- Promotions in the army should not be based on seniority alone
Brijesh D. Jayal
Passing on of the baton to the new chief of army staff in South Block the other day must have been accompanied by a huge sigh of relief just across the corridors in the offices of the ministry of defence. Indeed, the internecine warfare between the civilian leadership and the army these last few months had reached such a collective pitch, that one wondered from which direction the next salvo would emerge and what further damage it would do to the image of the army.
That the twilight period of the previous army chief’s tenure has demonstrated a huge void in trust between the civil and military leaderships is stating the obvious, but what must concern every citizen of this country is that the institution of the army itself appears deeply faction-ridden and afflicted by the very corruption bug that haunts our daily lives. To a people that rate the institution of the armed forces as the soundest amongst our democratic pillars, this must come as a rude shock. Whilst it falls on the shoulders of the new incumbent to pick up the debris and remould this fine army of ours, it would be naïve for others on the higher rungs of defence management to believe that life can move on without any introspection. One crucial area relates to the seniority principle in high-level appointments.
If there is one inference that emerges from this dark chapter, it is that at the core of many ills and the deep factionalism lies the hugely competitive race for promotions to the highest echelons of the military, those of service commanders and thence on to chief. The core implication of the erstwhile chief’s request for the recognition of his date of birth was the length of his remaining tenure, which in turn would have determined the fate of his successor, whose name was being openly mentioned in the media without having been formally announced. That was in itself a recent phenomenon, as names of successor chiefs are confidential till a formal announcement is made.
More ominously, during this unfortunate saga, we have repeatedly heard of succession plans being in existence. Indeed, even as the promotion of the army commander of a corps was held up owing to a discipline and vigilance ban by the army headquarters, he was already being billed as the successor to the new chief. All this appears new and lends some weight to claims that succession plans are indeed being hatched with manipulations to execute them. That would explain why factionalism seems to be rearing its ugly head in an institution that should have none of it. This trend has serious implications for the integrity and morale of the army. Some of these have been on display these last few trying months for the institution of the army.
At the heart of this problem lies the supposedly fair principle of seniority in matters of promotion to the top rung in any service. There can be no dispute about the principle that, while selecting individuals for senior level appointments, especially of chiefs, the aim should be for a system whose fairness does not relate to an individual’s interest, but to the interest of the service and, indeed in the final analysis, to the security interests of the country. The present system of seniority above all else patently fails this test as it is aimed more at avoiding controversy and in this sense is the soft approach.
As the present controversy has shown, this has a flip side as well. Those waiting in the queue can, by the sheer logic of dates of superannuation of those above, determine years in advance if they will have a chance to breast the tape. If so, they will not risk being forthright in their advice, will not stand by their subordinates in pursuit of justice, will not take the bold decisions expected of them or indeed expose themselves to hazardous assignments as this approach may needlessly rock the boat of their future. The name of the game, then, is to keep the powers that be happy, lobby and keep one’s tail clear. As long as one follows this status quo principle, the seniority model is sure to get one places. This is a recipe for pliable commanders and disastrous for any fighting arm, as the history of 1962 tells us.
Whilst initial seniority is determined at entry level depending on the date of commissioning, within the same batch it is also determined by the order of merit. The armed forces then have a time-tested system of assessing performance and accordingly determining promotions as one rises in operational experience, command experience and rank. The attrition rate is also cruelly high, but accepted as the price to be paid in the larger interests of national security. At higher ranks, as numbers lessen and the rough-and-tumble of the military profession takes its toll, not just past performance, but also employability for higher appointments become decision-making factors. So the competition gets even tougher. As long as the competition is fair and rules of the game transparent, officers take this in their stride. In true soldierly fashion they fade away in dignity, thereby setting an example of service before self. But times are now changing and the rot is beginning to infect the armed forces as well.
The question that needs asking is whether the so-called seniority principle is enhancing or eroding national security. Can leadership and, above all, task accomplishment even at the cost of the ultimate sacrifice, survive amidst such a culture? Does not this imply mediocrity and sycophancy in the services? Ironically, this cycle is also self-perpetuating. Those that aspire to reach senior-level appointments by benefiting from the system do not expect their subordinates to be fearless and upright professionals but meek ‘yes men’ and, sadly, there are many with ambitions larger than competence only too happy to fall in line because the service lists tell them that their time will come. Except that no one pauses to ponder that in war there is no prize for the runner-up.
Why, then, all this fuss about seniority? Should not the usefulness of seniority be limited to arriving at a panel? To those who say that all things being equal seniority must prevail one must put this poser. When looking for qualities of leadership, performance over some four decades in peace and war, moral courage and exposure to different assignments, which would add to experience in future employability, can you ever find two individuals in any panel and call them equal? To argue, as some have done recently, that every commander is fit to don the mantle of chief is to underestimate the diverse demands on a chief as both leader of his force and as adviser and partner to the civilian leadership. Many an otherwise brilliant field commander may well fall short of these qualities. That is why employability for each assignment needs to be weighed carefully during the selection process. And that is why in Western democracies the last mile selection process sometimes involves going well down the seniority list, with no slight being perceived by those passed.
Unfortunately this is a classic case of choosing a soft and lazy option over the more rigorous one of finding the right man for the right task. But such a system will only work if we have faith in the integrity of our system and are not swayed by parochial interests. We need to have the courage of our conviction to draw up panels for senior level appointments from service lists based purely on the criteria of merit and employability. Let the final selection be based purely on the principle of most meritorious and not that of seniority. The former meets the needs of national security while the latter is to meet the needs of an individual over a service.
To give the selected individual wider national acceptability it would be appropriate, once the appointments committee of the cabinet has selected a candidate for the post of commander or chief, that such individuals face the defence committee of Parliament for final endorsement. One sees some benefits to this approach. First, in matters of such crucial appointments there would be unanimity across the political spectrum. Second, lobbying, which has permeated even the services, would become redundant and, lastly, should there be any skeletons in any contender’s cupboard, a transparent system will bring them to the fore and save the institution of the military any embarrassment before damage is done.
The armed forces and, in particular, the army, have been through a harrowing time. If we are to emerge stronger rather than weaker from recent happenings, there is work to be done and since the weaknesses are well known the need of the hour is total transparency in the system and in the manner of selections to senior service appointments of commanders and chiefs. Not only will this give the services the benefit of capable leadership, but even more importantly, the message down the line will clearly be one of reward based on professionalism, leadership and sacrifice; the very qualities that our officer cadre needs to display if we are to face the formidable challenges to our national security.
If this awakening follows the trauma of the past few months, the price may still have been worth it. The alternative is frightening and being watched keenly across our northern and western borders.
The author is a retired air marshal of the Indian Air Force