Bottomline | Prime Minister’s Men

The government must hand-pick service chiefs, instead of opting for the senior-most officer

Pravin SawhneyPravin Sawhney

There has been a slanging match about politicising the appointment of the army chief on television channels. Amidst the General Election, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which is expected to do well, wrote to the Election Commission to instruct the government to defer announcing the next army chief, which should be done after May 16 by the new government. The army chief, General Bikram Singh retires on July 31.

Proponents of the army, on the other hand, said that the appointment of the army chief should not be politicised; the line of succession — implying the senior-most officer be appointed three months in advance for a smooth transition — should not be tampered with. While the senior-most officer is Lt Gen. Dalbir Singh Suhag, it was feared that the BJP, if it came to power, would side-step him for his politically favoured junior.

In the mostly one-sided heated debate, where few were willing to question the army’s image of a holy cow, three issue went undiscussed: what is the line of succession, why are three months needed for handing/taking over, and how is the army getting politicised? To be fair to taxpayers who sustain the 13 lakh strong army, they have a right to answers beyond emotional and hollow rhetoric.

There is no government order that the senior-most officer should be made service chief. This convention is politically convenient for three reasons: One, it does not generate controversy. Two, the government is not required to explain its action, which in turn implies that both the defence minister and the Prime Minister should know the officers in contention first hand. And three, few officers go to court seeking redress.

How fair is this elevation system for an army commander who loses out just because he had passed out from the academy some 38 years ago with a wee-bit lesser seniority? What about those better sparks who could not make it to army commander because of dishonourable intent of the army chief?

When we all desire better civil-military relations, shouldn’t the political leadership (Appointment Committee of Cabinet headed by the Prime Minister) be free to choose the army chief from the list of names given to it by the defence ministry, rather than rubber stamp the name of the senior-most officer sent to it? This will keep all army commanders guessing with each giving his best. Or, the cynic may say that this would lead to political jostling by aspirants at the cost of work. Maybe, nothing wrong with that either. After all, they all had been found professionally equal, so let the best who can work intimately with the political leadership win.

I would argue that rather than the selection to the top-post, the selection procedures to reach the penultimate rung should be fair and transparent. And this is what it is not. Is it not shameful that the army with 40,000 officers does not have a written promotion policy? All it has are innumerable amendments to (non-existing) promotion policy, which have been inserted by successive service chiefs to retain control and subjectivity. This has resulted in more and more officers going to courts for redress. The next government should correct this. Moreover, as per the Supreme Court order of 2000, the defence ministry should give a choice of minimum two names to the ACC for selection. For example, in a recent case, Lt Gen. Ravi Dastane has sought intervention of the highest court alleging that the sole name of Lt Gen. Dalbir Singh was sent to the ACC for appointment of the next army chief. The defence ministry has reportedly responded by saying that it did sift through seven senior-most officers and forwarded the name of the most deserving candidate to the ACC.

This is the problem. Officers’ complaints about their promotion are sent to the grievance cell under the office of the army chief, which itself has created the discontentment. The Armed Forces Tribunals, where appointments to senior retired officers are doled out by the defence ministry, cannot be expected to question the fairness of the defence ministry. Thus, the entire promotion and grievance system is politicised and compromised. This is what needs to be corrected.

The tradition of three months for handing/taking over of the army chief, unfortunately, demeans rather than helps the army. There have been instances when a service chief has entered office under exceptional circumstances. General Shankar Roychoudhary became army chief upon the sudden death of General B.C. Joshi in harness. To my mind, he proved a better chief than most. He is credited with settling the Rashtriya Rifles units which were suddenly raised by his predecessor in large numbers.

In reality, the three month period is a ruse which allows a service chief time to curry favour with the powerful bureaucracy to seek employment after superannuation. And of course, he also utilises this period on farewell visits to formations collecting gifts. Meanwhile, the successor does not profit much. He is sought to be inducted into the senior-most position of the system he knows like the back of his hand. Worse, during this period, he does not visit formations as it may steal the thunder of the incumbent doing his rounds; which is why on assuming office he needs many months to settle down in his job as the top operational commander.


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