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In response to Mohan Guruswamy's article on Indian military being 'incompetent'

Admiral Arun Prakash
Admiral Arun PrakashAug 06, 2016 | 17:54

In response to Mohan Guruswamy's article on Indian military being 'incompetent'

In an acerbic critique titled, "Flawed Generals; Who Will Bell the Cat", (Asian Age June 30, 2016) Mohan Guruswamy, an eminent economist and man of the world, has flayed the upper echelons of India's military as "visibly dense" and "obviously incompetent". These "uninspiring leader", according to him, rose in service, by managing to "get good ACR's year after year with bland obsequiousness".

Coming from a civilian, this is strong stuff. While the author did not provide any specific instances to substantiate his allegations, when an intelligent, tax-paying Indian citizen suggests that "the military must look within"; it calls for introspection. However, before commencing the process of soul-searching, three questions come to mind.

Firstly; why does he consider it fair game to pick on "military" incompetence when evidence of, not just incompetence, but virtual dysfunctionality, stares at him in the face on a daily basis - on the part of every single institution in India; including the Parliament, bureaucracy, police, public administration, public works and the criminal-justice system. 

For all the flaws that Guruswamy may perceive in the military, it remains the sole organisation in India that not only functions effectively, but has risen to every occasion, demanded by national security as well as public good. Apart from assuming "unlimited liability in defence of the nation's interests", it remains the standard-bearer of ethical conduct - visiting swift and ruthless retribution on the wayward and the corrupt.

Secondly; in a nation, which has, post-Independence, gleefully reverted to Moghul norms as far as sycophancy, nepotism, venality and ostentation in public life is concerned, why does he hold the military to higher standards of conduct than the rest of Indian society? And since he does so, why does he not spell out the reasons; bearing in mind that soldiers are not from Mars.

Finally; he is only partially correct when he remarks that, "...we have not had a major war in recent times to test the mettle of our commanders".

Surely he is aware that from October 1947, when the Sikh Regiment landed in Srinagar, till today, the Indian military has been engaged in nonstop management of violent conflict; external as well as domestic. Apart from five wars, an incessant series of low-intensity conflicts, involving militancy, secessionism and cross-border terrorism as well as border-skirmishes have tested the mettle of our military - and not found them wanting.

The crux of Guruswamy's criticism lies in his assertion that a "stubborn seniority system, adopted from the bureaucracy" eliminates military officers with talent, personality and intellectual curiosity. While there may be a kernel of truth in his perceptions, certain facts about the selection/promotion system followed by the military need to be clarified.

The military has not "adopted" any system from the bureaucracy and has its own, perfectly fair, methodology for selection of officers for promotion from the rank of Colonel to General (and equivalents in other Services). The very fact that between 60-70 per cent officers fall by the wayside, at each stage of promotion, speaks of the fierce competition and stringent selection criteria.

Promotion boards are convened periodically for placing officers on a "select-list" for promotion to ranks of Colonel and above.

The boards examine only the annual confidential reports (ACR) rendered on the candidates, which contain numerical gradings for a number of attributes, as well as a "pen picture" to substantiate the grading. The numerical gradings, awarded out of a (notional) maximum of 10 points should correspond to one of five classifications: "exceptionally outstanding", "outstanding", "above average", "average" and "below average".  

Unfortunately, progressive inflation in ACR marking, has over the years, undermined the reliability of the system, and it is not uncommon to see a majority of officers in a unit graded "outstanding" or even "exceptionally outstanding".

The reasons are two-fold: (a) the apprehension of the reporting officer that should his grading become known to the appraisee he will become a disgruntled element in the unit and (b) a parochial spirit which compels reporting officers of a certain arm, regiment or specialisation, to boost the gradings of their ilk.

Since the numerical gradings have lost their significance, the boards seek illumination from the pen-pictures. But here too, stilted English prevents the reporting officer from conveying a meaningful depiction of the officer. The boards are, consequently, forced to fall back on the expedient of  using computer generated "merit lists" based on the ACR numerical gradings; averaged out to the third or fourth decimal point.

The top scorers in this "lottery" of rankings are recommended for promotion, and it should not come as a surprise, if a number of undeserving "bad eggs" slip into higher (and highest) ranks.

Guruswamy makes a valid point about the necessity of "obsequiousness" for advancement. But this is a cultural trait in our society and we all know that age, rank and financial status demand much more deference in India than anywhere else in the world. 

Consequently, many fine officers do get eliminated at an early stage for their non-conformity or forthright views. There is no doubt that the evil of sycophancy - so prevailant in India's politics and society - will undermine the roots of our military unless the senior leadership curbs it ruthlessly.

Another area of disgruntlement arises from the fact that the service chiefs are entitled to have the last say as far as ACRs of Maj Gen, Lt Gen and (except in the army) C-in-C rank officers are concerned. This is quite appropriate, and the chief's numerical grading can over-ride any other assessment in the ACR.

However, like other reporting officers, the chief, too, must provide full justification, via written remarks, for overruling the earlier grading(s). Given the fact that the chief has the power to change relative ACR rankings at the highest levels, there have been allegations, of late, regarding chiefs contriving or fixing "lines of succession".

The fact that such a contention, however implausible, keeps cropping up; should be cause for reflection.

The last issue relates to uncharitable comments (mostly by military veterans), that one comes across on the internet, pertaining to the senior military leadership - past and present. The most damning criticism relates to the suggestion that chiefs and senior officers refrain from taking a stand with the MoD on critical service-related issues, because of the lure of post-retirement appointments.

Personally, I feel that it is an unfair aspersion, unworthy of our comrades-in-arms. To debunk it, I need to go no further than my immediate successor, and to point out that as CNS he took a firm and principled stand on the sixth CPC implementation, and was still sent on an ambassadorial assignment, where he distinguished himself.

Be that as it may, in order to kill this kind of unhealthy speculation, amongst the rank and file, it may be worthwhile for the current chiefs of staff committee to consider suo-moto renunciation of post-retirement government posts; as far as service chiefs are concerned.  

At the same time, they must also consider recommending to the government that henceforth: (a) candidates for gubernatorial and ambassadorial assignments will be nominated by the COSC from amongst retiring Cs-in-C and (b) appointees to the armed forces tribunals will be nominated by the COSC from three-star candidates, considered suitable.

Last updated: August 06, 2016 | 17:57
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