March 28, 2002


 Search the Internet
Send this page to a friend
Print this page Best Printed on HP Laserjets
Recent Columns
Where have the
     leaders gone?
Reality of War
Doing your own thing
Our superiority will
The limits of power

Admiral (retd) J G Nadkarni

Unworthy selections

The rather unflattering news about two senior air force officers has caused a great deal of uneasiness, not only within the services, but also among the general public. In one case the final decision has already been made and implemented, while the other is wending its way through the corridors of power in New Delhi.

In the case of Air Marshal M S Sekhon, the amazing thing is not that he sought favours from a political leader, but the utterly naive and unsophisticated way in which he did this. Many senior service officers develop close relationships with politicians even while they are in service. Many seek favours and get them too. Witness, for example, the number of retiring servicemen who have jumped on to political bandwagons. Some are rewarded with governorships, others with party tickets or even Rajya Sabha nominations. But all of them have enough sense to do their persuasion quietly behind the scenes.

In the air marshal's case it was done blatantly and openly on a semi-official letter written in poor English without the slightest finesse.

In the second case, again involving an air marshal and air force commander, an error of navigation was made by flying the aircraft, which was piloted by him, over neighbouring territory. This was bad, but not so serious as the pathetic efforts made by the senior officer after the incident to bluff his way through.

The aircraft was fired upon and the engine damaged. According to reports, first the officer tried to deceive his way though the incident by blaming the Indian Army for firing on the aircraft. When that failed, in the bargain arousing the ire of the army, he blamed the pilot of the aircraft.

In both cases there was a total and serious lack of judgement on the part of these senior officers. How is this possible?

Some time ago the Indian Army also lost two of its crucial strike force commanders who, in the midst of the present tense and eyeball-to-eyeball situation, suddenly went on leave or sought premature retirement.

All three services follow very stringent procedures when filling senior operational appointments. In fact, the proposed appointments have to be eventually approved by the Appointments Committee of the Cabinet after detailed scrutiny. The strike corps commander or the fleet commander in the navy or the air force commander carries enormous responsibility today. He controls weapons of vast lethal power and may sometime be called upon to deliver nuclear weapons in the future. "Jellicoe was the only man on both sides who could have lost the war in a single day," said Winston Churchill about the British Grand Fleet commander after the Battle of Jutland, when the British and German navies clashed. Today, the same can be said about the field commanders of the three services.

With their ability to unleash a war, senior officers in command are expected to exercise extreme judgement when dealing with various affairs. Their entire training and experience during their careers, and during the various courses, is designed to equip them in logical thinking and mature judgement. So the question on every lip is, how could two senior officers show such utter lack of judgement in their respective cases? Conversely, how could two officers lacking in this particular quality come to occupy such high places? Is there a flaw in the selection process, which allows such officers to rise to important positions for which they are not qualified?

India's armed forces have some of the most severe selection procedures in the country. To start with, more than 50,000 young men apply to enter the services as officers each year. After a written test and a selection process, only about 300 of these are selected to enter the portals of the prestigious National Defence Academy. At every step in the ladder of promotion, the unfit and unworthy are weeded out.

Out of a batch of 100, only 50 will make it past the first selection, to the rank of lieutenant colonel. More drop out as they reach higher. Just 25 will become colonels and 10 brigadiers. Eventually out of the original batch only a handful will become major generals and possibly two or three lieutenant generals. Out of every six batches only one will become the chief.

At every stage a board consisting of many senior officers sifts through the reports of officers being considered, eliminating those who do not make the grade. The final list is then further scrutinised at the chief's and then the ministry's level. At very senior levels the ACC has the final say. It seems inconceivable that an undeserving candidate will slip through this iron-tight system and make it to the very top.

In most cases they do not, but there have been times when some have beaten the system. Some have done it through political patronage. It is not unknown for a defence minister to push his own candidate or to include his name even in the final list. Some chiefs have vehemently opposed such interventions, others have succumbed as a quid pro quo for other favours. But such cases are not as frequent as believed. In fact there have also been some fine defence ministers who have never interfered either with the promotion system or in postings.

The flaw lies in the system itself. In all services the criterion for any promotions is performance and in the absence of any periodic written examination, the only way of judging performance is through the annual confidential reports. In any system where one officer is reporting on another, there is bound to be subjectivity. Junior officers cultivate seniors, become favourites and eventually get outstanding reports. The system expects to beat this by rotating officers so that they are reported upon by different officers. But the seniors have been known to keep the same officer with them for a number of years, eventually making sure he is promoted as a result of five or six reports written by a single officer.

Each service has its own flaws and faults. For some reason the air force gives excessive importance to fighter pilots, making sure that all senior operational appointments, including that of the chief, are held by this category. The navy gives too much importance to performance at sea, which sometimes translates into an officer's skill at ship-handling. If the criterion for the job of chief minister depended on skilful driving then possibly a Mumbai taxi driver may be the best suited. The army has its problem of regimental loyalties.

Some of these traditions have persisted for years. The services seriously need to introspect to determine whether these time-honoured systems have produced the desired results. By now each service has had its quota of problematic and undeserving senior officers. A detailed scrutiny, preferably by an outside agency, is necessary to put the entire system under a microscope and remove what is indeed rotten in the state of Denmark.

Admiral (retd) J G Nadkarni

Tell us what you think of this column