The government has sent a strong signal that only merit and suitability will count in occupying posts in the higher echelons of the military, notes Nitin Gokhale, founder, BharatShakti.in
Thirty-three years ago Prime Minister Indira Gandhi decided to bypass the seniority principle and appointed an armoured corps officer, Lieutenant General A S Vaidya as the Chief of Army staff superseding his senior Lieutenant General S K Sinha, a Gorkha regiment officer, leading to General Sinha's quiet and dignified exit.
Ironically, the tables have turned this time. Lieutenant General Bipin Rawat, appointed as the next army chief by the government on Saturday, is a Gorkha regiment officer who has superseded two of his seniors -- Lieutenant General Praveen Bakshi and Lieutenant General P M Hariz.
General Bakshi, the Eastern Army Commander, belongs to the Armoured Corps while General Hariz, the Pune-based Southern Army Commander, is a Mechanised Infantry officer.
According to old timers, Indira Gandhi had asked the then outgoing chief General K V Krishna Rao who she thought deserved the top spot.
Apparently, General Krishna Rao, ever the correct military professional, is said to have told Indira Gandhi: 'General Vaidya is a great operational man on the field (he won two Mahavir Chakras in the 1965 and 1971 wars) while General Sinha is an outstanding staff officer. However, the choice for the top post is entirely yours.'
For Indira Gandhi, a COAS, in her judgement, should be an excellent field commander to head the Indian Army.
In General Rawat's case too his greater field experience may have titled the scales in his favour.
The government came to a conclusion it could work with General Rawat, with his wide ranging experience better than the other two generals in the running.
General Rawat commanded a Rashtriya Rifles Sector as a brigadier and the Baramulla-based 19 Division as a major general during intense counter-insurgency days in Jammu and Kashmir besides a tenure in the United Nations.
He was also the commanding officer of the 5/11 Gorkha Rifles in Op Falcon against the Chinese in Tawang in 1986-1987. As a lieutenant general he commanded the Dimapur-based 3 Corps before taking over as the Southern Army Commander and then for the last six months was the vice chief of army staff in Delhi.
General Bakshi, an upright and professionally competent officer on the other hand, commanded his brigade and division in the Rajasthan desert and spent very little time in the north-east or J&K until he became a three-star officer simply because Armoured Corps officers do not get too many opportunities to go beyond their general area of deployment.
There is no doubt that General Bakshi would have made an equally effective COAS had he been elevated, but the government thought it could utilise General Rawat's greater experience in J&K since the challenge of proxy war from Pakistan is unlikely to go away in the near future.
General Rawat will take over on December 31 succeeding General Dalbir Singh Suhag.
General Rawat's elevation has expectedly created a stir with Opposition parties and some veterans questioning the government's decision.
The government is well within its right to choose from a panel of names that the defence ministry sends to the prime minister's office and to the Cabinet Appointments Committee.
In this case, the government in its wisdom chose to select General Rawat to the top post. His appointment should in no way be seen as a poor reflection on the abilities of the other two contenders.
In any case, there have been earlier precedents (apart from the Generals Vaidya-Sinha episode) both in the Indian Navy and the Indian Air Force of senior officers being overlooked.
In 2014, the United Progressive Alliance government appointed Admiral Robin Dhowan as the navy chief bypassing his senior Vice Admiral Shekhar Sinha.
In the 1980s, the IAF witnessed at least two instances of supersession.
General Rawat's appointment also breaks the element of predictability that has set in the higher leadership of the Indian military of late where officers in the rank of one-star (brigadier and equivalent) above exactly know who is likely to become a two- and a three-star officer and who will be the chief six years down the line based on a combination of date of birth and seniority.
As a result, those in the higher merit have started becoming 'safe' players, unwilling to take any decision that would affect their prospects and becoming timid in their day to day functioning.
Another category of officers start looking for 'godfathers' to further their own chances affecting the quality of leadership and decision making.
By jettisoning the seniority principle, the government has sent a strong signal that only merit and suitability will count in occupying posts in the higher echelons of the military.
This should rattle many 'safety-first' players from their stupor and perhaps lead to a much wanted shake up.
Further, 'merit' in this rank is not to be based on confidential reports, course grading or awards.
Merit, at the highest level basically means 'relative ease of doing business' with the political leadership in the prevailing security environment.
It is the sum of personality factors viz, risk taking profile, decisiveness, tolerance of complexity, tolerance of ambiguity, and synergy of thought with other stakeholders in national strategic security issues.
Incidentally, the seniority principle is not followed for the top job in most professional armies, whether in the United States, France, Germany, China and or even in Pakistan. There is no reason why India cannot experiment with this model.