Know Your Enemy
Army chief's appointment: 5 questions nobody's asking
What the government has done is remind the establishment that the seniority principle is simply that — a principle.
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"Gentlemen, I believe that the seniority principle is adversely impacting quality of our senior military leadership."
The words of a senior serving officer of the Indian Army in one of many WhatsApp/email groups that exploded on Saturday evening with the appointment of Lt Gen Bipin Rawat as India's next Army chief.
It's been a rumbling weekend in the Army, with a part of its very core turned on its head. There have been sharp arguments on both sides. But in the noise of the supposed subversion of tradition, there are five questions that haven't been asked yet — and they certainly haven't been answered satisfactorily.Lt Gen Bipin Rawat has been appointed as India's next Army chief, superseding two seniormost Lt Generals, Praveen Bakshi and P M Hariz.
1. Has a deathblow been delivered to "succession chains"?
Yes, it has. What Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the Cabinet Committee on Appointments (CCA) did last week was exercise their prerogative to choose from a panel of senior lieutenant generals, each one seen as fit to be Chief of the Army Staff.
You've seen arguments explode everywhere over how the "seniority principle" has been cast aside by this decision, since Lt Gen Bipin Rawat's appointment is a leapfrog over two lieutenant generals senior to him. This is true. The "seniority principle", by which the seniormost serving lieutenant general has traditionally been appointed Army chief, is now a bit of a ghost.
The "seniority principle" is an example of how a time-tested tradition — not a law or binding rule — has simply been assumed to be the only way to do things. What the government has done is remind the establishment that the seniority principle is simply that — a principle. Invoked only once before in the Army by Indira Gandhi in 1983, last week's appointment is controversial as it deviates from tradition, not law.
2. Can "traditional practice" be cast aside so easily?
Apparently not. There have been major eruptions on discussion groups within the Army about what this means for the future, with passionate arguments on both sides. In a disciplined, regimented institution like the Army that functions on the mathematics of seniority of command, deviations from a tradition that has seen generations of chiefs stand appointed, is an unsettling pill.
It creates a tectonic wave right through the very core of how the Army propels its best officers onward and upward. In this case, two lieutenant generals — Praveen Bakshi and PM Hariz — have been told to serve under a chief who is junior to them. There is no bigger "ask" in the ranks than this. And it may be expected that both officers will resign, unless they are 'accommodated' (the latter would, of course, negate the entire idea of the leapfrog selection).
But what appears clear is that the senior officers have been doing their bit to make sense of the unpredictability that has been thrust into the already complex matrix of promotions.
Consider the words of another senior serving officer on a closed WhatsApp group: "Gentlemen, we want even a colonel, commanding officer of a unit to have a say in choosing his adjutant, quarter master, subedar major etc, not necessarily on seniority principle. But we still question when a chief chooses his principle staff officer (PSO) or the PM chooses his service chief. Do think."
3. But doesn't the "seniority ladder" imply merit?
Yes, it does, but there's a more complicated answer. What the government has done in one fell swoop is dismiss this carefully crafted senior ladder as being fully representative of merit. The system of deep selection and promotions within the Army has always been meant to ensure that officers of an unmatched calibre ever get to don three stars, and only a handful among this group ever get to be Army commanders or the vice chief of army staff (the posts of Army commander and VCOAS are on par), going on to represent part or all of the pool from which the Army's next chief may be chosen.
While misgivings have lingered over the years on the way the promotion system works, it has largely been regarded as representative of being propelled by merit. In other words, the seniority ladder — with obvious exceptions at every step given the human competitiveness and perceptions that imbue every step — is seen as a pyramid of merit. But consider these words, also from a senior officer, and also from a Whatsapp group that buzzed on Saturday evening: "Bigger threat to quality of professional military leadership comes from internal unethical competition based on succession plans and how it impacts each individual from brigadier upwards."
4. Doesn't this decision open opportunities for political lobbying?
A couple of bitter truths first: lobbying with bureaucrats or the political class for military promotions and appointments has been a practice since independence. Discretion, favour, political patronage and interference has frequently shaped the so-called ladder of seniority in the three services.
While few instances of such overt political help have ever been proven, it is common knowledge in the ranks that currying favour plays a part in who goes where, or does what. The Army's system of reports and credits attempts to ensure that such an external influence is firewalled or minimised, but doesn't always succeed. Where discretion is concerned, orders have a way of falling in line. There is a sense, however, that the opportunities for political lobbying won't change significantly.
A cynical assertion by a senior officer on one of the WhatsApp groups quotes above has this to say: "Appointments at Lt Gen are approved by the CCA. Don't believe political bosses at this level have arms/regiment affiliations. Threat of officers currying favour of political class doesn't increase or diminish either way."
5. Does this affect Army morale?
We (mostly rightly) regard our soldiers and generals as existing on a higher, tougher plane. That they're made of far harder stuff than we could ever hope to be.
In essence, the Army is just a very large group of humans set to work together in chronically difficult conditions, under sustained pressure and guided by a large web of rules and standards. They're human, not robots. Decisions that disrupt the few threads of predictability that guide their lives and careers tend to be amplified given just how much they depend on routine. On the other hand, I've always wondered why we consider morale to be a bag of eggshells. The Army has been through exponentially more turbulent times of unpredictability (this decade itself, anyone will remember) and preserved its core ethos of discipline and focus.
This is not for a moment to suggest that it is okay for the Army to be subjected to turbulence for that reason — that they can take the hit. Far from it. This is to only suggest that morale is a far more complex animal than most suggest it is. It spans from the smallest unit, all the way to the Army chief's office.
Will the rank and file have misgivings about serving under a chief appointed at the cost of two others? This of course goes back to question 1 and its answer. Could there be a compounding effect on the ranks after a series of controversies and collisions — from One Rank One Pension to the 7th Pay Commission to the Disability Pensions eruption to now this? Possibly.
So does Saturday's decision affect morale in the ranks then? I put that question to two Army officers who retired only last year, and I'll end with their words:
1. "It does impact morale, but mercifully not at the soldiering and junior officer level. What worries me is that it has driven a final nail between the infantry and other arms."
2. "Morale is about right and wrong. It's not just about what gets you going in the morning. It's about the small picture and the big picture. And that's everything."