'A seniority-based system created a situation where senior officers would know, years in advance, who would be the chief at some future date and the rest would not have a shot at the highest post!'
'Out of this idiotic concoction was born the media created myth of "line of succession," as if the Indian Army was some kind of monarchy,' says Colonel Anil A Athale (retd).
Out of respect for the institution of the Indian Army, I had decided not to comment on the current controversy. But the avalanche of ignorant, malicious and nasty comments has forced me to write. But before we understand the issue at hand, some basic facts need to be reiterated.
In the armed forces at all levels, (jawans as well as officers) except for the first one or two steps, all other promotions are based on selection and merit and not just seniority.
This naturally involves frequent supersession. All members of the armed forces know this and accept it as 'normal.'
The argument that this decision will affect the morale of the armed forces made by critics is bogus and needs to be ignored with the contempt it deserves.
Yes, in the last few years, this norm was floated and a new tradition of automatically appointing the senior-most as chief had evolved.
This had more to do with a weak government in an era of parliamentary minorities ruling in a coalition than any other factor.
The revolving door regimes that the country saw in the 1990s saw this practice solidify as the new 'normal.' Weak governments often then indulged in the practice of manipulating the system by selectively granting 'extensions'!
I have been a critic of this seniority-based system for a long time. This had an adverse effect on the efficiency of the armed forces as it made the final selection pre-ordained.
Thus it created a situation whereby officers in the higher ranks would know, years in advance, who amongst them would be the chief at some future date and the rest will not have a shot at the highest post!
Out of this idiotic concoction was born the media created myth of 'line of succession,' as if the Indian Army was some kind of monarchy.
It is undoubtedly true that there is very little to choose between army commanders in terms of professional competence.
In that case the existing situation and immediate challenges and relevant experience become a clinching point, as it has in the case of the present appointment.
I recall a very interesting conversation I had with a close relative of mine many decades ago. He belonged to the mechanised forces and was posted in the Military Secretary's branch at the time and dealt with officers' promotions.
At that time the Indian peace keeping operations in Sri Lanka were in full swing and many leaders faced the acid test of combat command in active operations.
The Indian Army in its wisdom then formulated a policy whereby greater weightage was given to combat experience.
In this scheme of things, the officers who were posted in peace stations obviously suffered.
My cousin raised the issue of these officers saying why should they suffer for lack of experience. My argument was that it is indeed unlucky for these individuals, but then as far as the army is concerned should we not rather go for proven combat talent? The person concerned went on to become an army commander at a later date.
For several decades now, the tribe of strategic analysts in India has been clamouring for appointment of a Chief of Defence Staff or CDS as a single point advisor to the government on defence matters.
It is rumoured that the government is indeed on the verge of appointing a permanent Chief of Staff (rather than the present rotating appointment that is in addition to being chief of service).
If this happens, it will indeed be a positive step in the right direction. The reason for this is that the present service chiefs have triple responsibility.
They have to administer and command their service and have to make and execute plans.
Their role as 'advisor' to the political leadership is in addition to this.
It is not an exaggeration to say that the routine administrative workload of a service chief far exceeds his operational intervention.
With the creation of a CDS (Chief of Defence Staff) or a permanent Chairman, Chief of Staff, this burden will be lessened.
In addition, joint planning and execution will get a leg up, required in modern warfare.
The vetting of operational plans as well as procurement from a joint services perspective by the CDS will add a further refinement to the process of higher direction of defence.
Currently this is done at the minister of defence level, but that lacks professional inputs that only experts can give.
The current hullabaloo over the army chief's selection is due to the need of out of work politicians to remain in the public eye.
India is not Pakistan where the army chief is more powerful than the PM and therefore while the army chief's post is important, it is not the most important post in the government.
By attributing motives and harking back to the 'seniority' principle, they are harming national interest and involving the army in politics, like a CM did some time ago.
Do these worthies want the armed forces to follow the judiciary where we have chief justices having a tenure of less than a few months or barely an year?
Or do they think that we should follow the civil service practice of appointing 'additional' rank posts?
Colonel Anil A Athale (retd) is a military historian specialising in insurgency studies.
IMAGE: The three service chiefs at the Amar Jawan Jyoti on Navy Day, December 4. Photograph: Press Information Bureau