For the past 10 days, the Narendra Modi government’s controversial ‘Agnipath’ or short-term contractual recruitment scheme for soldiers/air warriors/sailors of the Indian Armed Forces has hogged the headlines with widespread riots and subsequent troubleshooting by the government and the armed forces. Another controversial decision with respect to the appointment of the Chief of Defence Staff through “deep selection” and possible refinement of his charter seems to have been put on the back burner.
On 7 June, the Modi government issued a notification to make all serving and retired Generals, that is, Chiefs of Army/Air/Naval Staff, and Lieutenant Generals (Lt Gens) below the age of 62 — eligible for the appointment of Chief of Defence Staff (CDS). This decision, which impinges on the seniority, rank and status of the military hierarchy, invited criticism from defence analysts and veterans who perceived it as a tool to appoint “political generals” as the CDS, apart from diluting a well established command and control system in the Indian military.
I am a firm believer that there is always a ‘first among equals’ in the field of military leadership and for the transformation of the armed forces, as in war, it is not the ‘senior-most’ but ‘the most meritorious’ General who counts. The challenge before the Modi government is to find ‘the man’ in a fair, transparent and ethical manner.
In a democracy the selection of the CDS and Service Chiefs is the prerogative of the political government. However, the Defence Minister and the Prime Minister do not directly interact with higher commanders and have little knowledge about them. By compulsion, the government has to rely upon the ambiguous comparison of dossiers based on the military’s appraisal system, by the defence ministry bureaucrats, Intelligence Bureau inputs, spoken reputation and political leanings. Keeping this in view, all governments generally adhered to the principle of seniority-cum-merit — that is, when seniority is given priority with merit (among very senior officers) being considered equal/relative.
Unless a transparent and ethical system is established for selection based on the principle of merit-cum-seniority — that is, merit being given priority and seniority among contenders being considered relative — any interference with the principle of seniority-cum-merit will smack of political interference and make the military hierarchy beholden to the government.
Based on the new government notification, approximately 150 serving and 50 retired Lt Gens and three serving Service Chiefs below the age of 62 years will be eligible for the post of CDS. The difference in the seniority between the junior most Lt Gen and senior most Service Chief could be as much as 6-7 years.
The Modi government has put a question mark on the Indian military’s appraisal/selection system for Army Commanders/equivalent and its own system of selection for Service Chiefs who are senior to Lt Gens by appointment/rank. Even if “deep selection” was the aim, the panel could have been restricted to the 25-odd serving Army Commanders/equivalent and the three Service Chiefs.
As of now the appointments of the Service Chiefs and the CDS are done without any specific criterion, competency requirement or qualification. There is no detailed appraisal done within the armed forces for Army Commanders/equivalent or for the Service Chiefs by the Defence Minister. It goes without saying that the selection of the Service Chiefs and the CDS, if made on ‘merit’ under the current circumstances, will remain subjective.
The armed forces’ appraisal system, which selects the officers up to the rank Lt Gens and Army Commanders/equivalent who are now contenders for the post of the CDS, itself is in need of reform. The objectivity of any appraisal system is governed by the prevailing standards of character and ethics.
The current system of appraisal in the armed forces is mired in subjectivity, flaws in character of the assessors which impinges on moral courage and prevalence of regimental/arm/association related parochialism. This has led to inflation of annual confidential reports and far too many ‘meritorious officers’ contending for limited senior ranks. There is a question mark over genuine merit within the armed forces. The involvement of a large number of senior officers including three Service Chiefs in the Adarsh housing scam proves the point. The only mitigating factor is that it applies equally to all.
Controversies apart, there is precedence of relatively junior meritorious officers being appointed to the highest military offices both in India and abroad. With respect to appointment of Service Chiefs In India, it has been thrice for the Army, twice for the Navy and once for the Air Force. General Dwight Eisenhower, who rose to be the President of the United States, is also a notable example.
Such appointments got mired in controversies due to lack of transparency and a formal system to select the meritorious. Superseded officers either resigned or accepted the situation in the interest of the organisation and the nation in times of war. However, the difference in seniority was marginal.
A larger difference in seniority or the supersession of serving Service Chiefs is likely to cause a major upheaval and have an adverse impact on the morale of the armed forces. More so, if a retired Lt Gen junior in rank to serving Service Chiefs is appointed, even if he was originally senior based on date of commission. If their spine is straight, the Service Chiefs will resign leaving the government embarrassed.
There is no precedence in India of a retired officer being recalled to service and then appointed to the highest military office. Prime Minister Nehru did toy with the idea of recalling General S P P Thorat to become the Army Chief after the 1962 debacle, but finally appointed him as a member of the National Defence Council. However, retired officers have been appointed as Deputy NSA, Military Advisor to NSC , members of the National Security Advisory Board and now as advisor to the MoD. Even in other militaries, recalling senior officers to active service to man high military offices has been an exception. In the US, General Douglas MacArthur, General Maxwell Taylor and General Peter J. Schoomaker are notable examples.
Recalling of retired officers to man the highest military office also raises the question as to why the concerned officer could not be appointed to the highest office through deep selection — or if need be by sacking his ‘incompetent superiors’ — while in service. Over the last eight years, the political leadership has been singing paeans about the outstanding leadership of the armed forces. It does not augur well if now, suddenly, that leadership is found incompetent.
It appears that the tweaking of the eligibility has been done to fill the coveted CDS post with a specific retired Lt Gen or an Army Commander. The spin of ‘deep selection’ to find the meritorious individual out of a pool of 150 serving and 50 retired officers of the rank of Lt Gen and above is a charade.
It would be prudent for the Modi government to lay down the competency requirements for the post of the CDS and restrict the selection panel to the Service Chiefs. In the last eight years it has already exercised the option of merit-driven deep selection three times for the appointment of Service Chiefs. If it lacks confidence in them and wants to deride its own selection norms, then the panel can be stretched to include all serving Army Commanders/equivalent.
Set up a special committee comprising the NSA, retired Service Chiefs and Cabinet Secretaries with the Defence Minister as chairperson. The special committee must scrutinise the dossiers, check on the spoken reputation and interview the officers to shortlist three names in order of priority. The final decision should be left to the Cabinet Committee on Security.
In the long term, the armed forces must reform their appraisal system and introduce ‘deep selection’ on merit for all selection ranks. The Modi government must lay down a transparent and ethical procedure for selection of the CDS and the Service Chiefs on the principle of merit-cum-seniority. Scraping the barrel to look for retired officers to occupy the highest military office is an insult to the serving military hierarchy and brings to ridicule the government’s own existing selection procedure.
Lt Gen H S Panag PVSM, AVSM (R), served in the Indian Army for 40 years. He was GOC in C Northern Command and Central Command. Post-retirement, he was Member of Armed Forces Tribunal. He tweets @rwac48. Views are personal.
(Edited by Prashant)