The recent news of the Indian Ministry of Defence examining the selection criteria to the higher echelons of the military hierarchy took me back to what I wrote in 2017 – “India’s march to modernity will necessarily involve dismantling entrenched feudalism that privileges birth and seniority over merit. The selection of the senior military leadership should not remain tethered to a feudal framework that underlies existing practices. Modern India must embrace merit over everything else. No efforts should be spared in improving the quality of military leadership, on which, hangs the effectiveness of India’s military power.” Nearly four years later, contrary to reactions on the news, I don’t think I need to change my stand. Here’s why.
The current debate is in the context of the Narendra Modi government exercising its political judgement to select Army, Navy and Air Force Chiefs by disregarding seniority. It is framed as a binary choice between merit and seniority. As I have written earlier, the prime argument asserted to privilege seniority over merit has hinged on the necessity to maintain the Armed Forces as an apolitical institution, a contention that rests on the notion that it would otherwise open up the possibility of political favouritism, with military leaders attempting to cosy up to politicians, thus politicising the military as an institution. This is true and a perennial danger in a democracy.
The ultimate power to select the senior Armed Forces leadership has to be left to politicians. It can be misused like any other power wielded by them. In a democracy, the main check is the electoral power of the populace as also the legal safeguards provided by the Constitution. This is reflected in the long-standing selection system for Chiefs and Army Commanders or their equivalents. The final selection has always been done from a panel based on seniority and eligibility criteria.
A case can be made that India’s electoral system must be reformed to improve the overall quality of India’s politicians. An analysis of criminal, financial, and other backgrounds of the Union Council of Ministers post the Cabinet expansion on 7 July 2021 by the Association for Democratic Reforms is indicative of the need to improve the quality of India’s political leadership. But we all know that the current electoral system of the first-past-the-post needs to be changed to move away from the reality that most elected leaders represent only a minority of their respective constituencies. But change is unlikely unless it comes through the legal route. Let it be clear that the military will have to learn to cope with what might be considered as the unethical predations of India’s political leadership. It is simply the baggage that the Indian military must prepare itself to endure. It is a reality that cannot be wished away.
Ethics and professionalism above sycophancy
If adherence to seniority cannot provide adequate protection, then it is only the military that will have to fend for itself. A lot can be done, and one must not refrain from examining such a feasibility with the argument that the present system is time-tested and has proven itself. It has not. How does one then explain that several Generals were part of the Adarsh scam? The military must introspect and search for an answer to this question — how did they get to hold their position in the hierarchy?
Asking such a question should uncover the fault lines that pervade the ethical construct of the military, which is the main armour that provides some relief from political predation. It is not an issue that must be viewed through the lens of seniority-versus-merit. The deeper issue here is ethical conduct of the higher military leadership. Professionalism and ethical conduct cannot be separated; they complement each other. Both are subject to an institutional acculturation process.
Professionalism is a product of the professional military education system, experience, and individual agency. There is a lot that can be done in the education system, and with the switch to Theatre Commands, the challenge is greater. Identifying individuals as early as possible and providing them experience is a management issue that must find focus. India’s diverse operational geographies and perennial operational engagements provide enough scope.
Individual agency is subject to the highs and lows of human nature where ambition can drive performance positively but can also lead to people sacrificing ethical values at the altar of promotions. This must be also viewed as the state of nature. But the judgement of merit for promotion must be extra sensitive to identify and weed out the sycophants, the most dangerous trait at the higher leadership levels, which is also the object of political skullduggery.
Systemic identification of sycophants is possible if the incentive system allows for the expression of dissent and airing of independent views without treating them as insubordination. The cultural norm should be one of allowing freedom of expression. But once a decision is taken, dissent cannot be allowed to drag execution. The military cannot be a freewheeling debate society.
Sycophants normally never have an opinion of their own and will ride on the opinion of their leaders and provide fuel to reinforce it, and lace it with praise. In the late nineties, a colleague jocularly described such people as ‘fart catchers’ of their seniors.
The Vice-Chiefs who have now been tasked with reviewing the promotion system must focus on the sycophant issue among many others that include the elimination of the ‘caste system’ that privileges backgrounds and prefers particular branches or arms of the Indian Army like Infantry over Armoured Corps or Mechanised Infantry despite all of them belonging to the combat arm. Similar issues plague the Air Force with fighter/transport/helicopter pilots and the Navy with surface/undersea and aerial combatants.
Moral fibre of the military
Competence for senior leadership does not naturally follow from achieving tactical success at lower levels in the military. Strategic leaders must be selected based on different criteria that need to be identified and incorporated in the Annual Confidential Report and are moderated at two or three levels. While judging, merit will remain a subjective process, and the heart of evaluation of senior leadership potential must reside in the ethical domain.
There is also a host of issues across the Armed Forces to strengthen ‘jointness’, including common minimum eligibility tenures of Commanders-in-Chief. The tenure should be at least two years. The Army, about two years ago, reduced it to 18 months while the Navy and Air Force have kept it at 12 months. Even with two years, it has destabilised tenures of C-in-Cs because there are three rotational Commands of Andaman & Nicobar, Strategic Forces Command, and Chief of Integrated Staff. This issue needs to be addressed. Currently, the ascent to C-in-C levels is based on seniority and eligibility. There is a case for a Joint Service Board comprising the Chiefs and the Theatre Commanders to approve three stars for C-in-C status.
The Indian political class has tasted blood by leveraging the military for partisan politics. The mobilisation of the already stretched resources of the Armed Forces to demonstrate solidarity for frontline medical workers in 2020 is one example among several others, including the appearance of posters of the military after India’s military strikes post-Uri attack. The projection of the PM as the originator of the idea of flying beneath the clouds for the Balakot strike to achieve operational effectiveness may have convinced some admiring followers but was laughable to those in the know of things.
India’s quality of military leadership is already under test, and with the current trajectory of geopolitical tensions coupled with fractious domestic politics, its challenges may grow exponentially. In the context of selecting senior military leadership, the politicians could plausibly be on a quest for minions. Only the military’s moral fibre can give it a fighting chance to overcome such deviant exertions.
Lt Gen (retd) Dr Prakash Menon is Director, Strategic Studies Programme, Takshashila Institution; former Military Adviser, National Security Council Secretariat; and former Member, Executive Council, IDSA. He tweets @prakashmenon51. Views are personal.