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Out-of-turn promotion is the only way to recognise and encourage merit in our military

Seniority impinges on merit and there is a need for reform. The challenge is to have a system to find the meritorious 'first'.

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In light of the impending tri-Service integration, the Ministry of Defence is concomitantly examining a proposal for “a more progressive, common and merit-based” policy for the promotion of officers to three-star ranks — Lieutenant Generals and equivalent, in general, and General/Flag/Air Officers Commanding-in-Chief who head Service commands and will head theatre commands in future, in particular — the Times of India reported on 9 August.

The intent of the proposal is crystal clear — to promote meritocracy in higher ranks and appointments of the armed forces. It is most likely that the proposal has emanated from the Department of Military Affairs (DMA), headed by General Bipin Rawat, whose own appointment as the Chief of the Army Staff (COAS), superseding two colleagues, and later, on eve of his retirement, as the Chief of Defence Staff (CDS), was driven by merit as assessed by the Appointments Committee of the Cabinet. A tri-Service committee of Vice Chiefs has been set up to study the proposal and recommend suitable merit-based criteria for the selection of Commanding in Chiefs (C-in-Cs).

The debate about merit-versus-seniority in promotions, particularly with respect to promotions to the top four rungs — Lt Gens and equivalents, C-in-Cs, Service Chiefs and the CDS — has been reignited. Meritocracy is a universal principle for the pursuit of excellence, and in a nation’s instrument of last resort, the armed forces, it must prevail.

There is always a first among equals. The challenge is to have a system to find the meritorious ‘first’. Due to the lack of a foolproof system of selection and promotions, the principle of merit-cum-seniority has taken root. In my view, seniority does impinge on merit and there is a need for reform.

I analyse the pros and cons of the prevailing merit cum seniority system of selection and promotions prevailing in the armed forces, and the way forward for reforms.


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Pros and cons of the existing promotion system 

Let there be no doubt that even in the prevailing system, all promotions for the ranks of Colonel and equivalent up to C-in-C are based on merit derived from a three-tier appraisal process. Seniority comes into play for the actual assumption of appointment. The selection of Service Chiefs and the CDS is done by the government at its discretion. The principle of seniority has generally been adhered to. However, at times, the government has also relied upon ‘merit’, beginning with the appointment of General K.S. Thimayya in 1957, who superseded two colleagues.

Any appraisal system is contingent upon the prevailing standards of character and ethics. As I have written before in a Newslaundry column, over the years, the system of appraisal within the armed forces has become flawed due to lack of objectivity, the prevalence of regimental and arm parochialism, and weakness in the character of the assessing officers. The fallout has been inflation of reports due to lack of moral courage of the assessors leading to a deluge of ‘meritorious officers’. The casualty is genuine merit. Below par leadership and character of the entire office corps has a big role to play here. The involvement of a large number of senior officers including three Service Chiefs in the Adarsh scam proves the point. The only mitigating factor is that it applies equally to all.

Criteria and competencies for various command and staff appointments are not clearly defined. This also brings about subjectivity in the appraisal system.

Over a period of time, the promotion of prodigies, arm and regimental officers by senior officers in the armed forces, including C-in-Cs and Service Chiefs have also played a dubious role. They manipulate postings and appointments of the favoured ones, influencing the ‘merit dossier’ for future promotions.

Seniority among peers is derived from the order of merit at the time of graduation from the military academies. The Indian Navy does have a system to revise this seniority during the first two years of service based on performance, but thereafter, the seniority remains constant. This is illogical because it does not cater for intellectual growth and current meritorious performance. There is a need to reassess the order of merit at the time of selection to each higher rank to decide the future seniority among peers.

For promotion to higher ranks, two additional factors come into play — the requirement of residual service and the date of retirement, which is fixed by age and thus linked to the date of birth. In a pyramidical organisation, the promotions are slow and the tenures of higher ranks become short, impinging on organisational efficiency.

To overcome this problem, the concept of residual service was introduced. In the Army, there is a requirement of 3 years of residual service from the date of appointment to become a Corps Commander and 1.5 years to become a General Officer Commanding-in-Chief (GOC-in-C)/Army Commander. In the Air Force and Navy, one-year residual service is required to become a C-in-C. Both these factors — residual service and date of birth — impinge upon merit.

In a pyramidal structure, the promotions are considered year wise. Generally, it is two batches plus the short service officers who are granted permanent commissions. There is no concept of out-of-turn promotions for meritorious officers. For the sake of continuity, there is also a requirement for longer tenures in higher ranks. In the current system, this is only possible with the anti-merit concept of residual service. A system of deep selection to give out-of-turn promotions to meritorious officers can solve the problem. This can be introduced for selection to the rank of Brigadier or Major General and equivalent upwards.

At present, the Ministry of Defence (MoD)/DMA reviews and approves the promotion from Brigadier to Major General and processes the promotions of Lt Gens, C-in-Cs and Chiefs for approval by the Appointment Committee of the Cabinet. There is no appraisal system for C-in-Cs and Chiefs.

In all democracies, the selection of Service Chiefs/CDS is done by the government. In India, the Defence Minister and the Prime Minister do not directly interact with higher commanders and have little knowledge about them. Unless a system is established for selection on merit, any interference with the principle of seniority will smack of political interference and make the military hierarchy beholden to the government. For now, the appointments of the COAS and CDS are done without a specific criterion, competency requirement or qualification. Thus, the judgement of the government becomes subjective. More so, when no detailed appraisal is done within the army for the C-in-Cs.


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The way forward 

For a merit-based system to prevail, the Army must first bring reforms to arrest the drop in character and ethics of the officer corps, particularly of the hierarchy. The objectivity of the appraisal system is dependent on the character and ethics of the assessor.

There is also a need to review and refine the criteria and competencies required for all command and staff appointments, particularly with respect to higher ranks.

The concept of seniority based on merit at the time of commissioning needs to be reviewed. The way forward is to reassess the merit at the time of selection to the rank of Brigadier/Major General and equivalent, upwards to decide seniority among peers.

There is a need to introduce ‘deep selection’ to identify and groom officers for higher ranks. Meritorious officers must be given out-of-turn promotions. This can be introduced at the level of Brigadiers and equivalent but is a must for the appointments of Major Generals (and equivalent) above. The concept of residual service must be done away with and replaced with merit-driven deep selection. This is best done by a Senior Officers Management Committee, consisting of the CDS and Service Chiefs assisted by the staff. The setting up of an independent permanent board headed by a retired CDS/Service Chief may also be considered.

As I had written earlier, the Senior Officers Management Committee/Board must evolve a formal system of assessing the potential of prospective candidates for all appointments of  Lt Gens and equivalent and C-in-Cs based on specific competencies and qualifications formulated.  Formal interactive interviews should be held. The government must independently do a similar exercise for the selection of the Service Chiefs and the CDS.

The CDS must be lauded for his initiative to bring merit to the fore in the armed forces. His challenge will be to evolve a fail-safe and transparent system to select the meritorious. It would be prudent for the government to do the same for the selection of Service Chiefs and the CDS. In absence of this prerequisite, it would be prudent not to tinker with the existing system.

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. Views are personal.

(Edited by Srinjoy Dey)

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