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Army Chief Supersession: 'Seniority' Lazy Approach to Leadership Issue

VVP Sharma

Updated: December 21, 2016, 2:27 PM IST
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Army Chief Supersession: 'Seniority' Lazy Approach to Leadership Issue
File image of the new Army Chief Lt Gen Bipin Rawat. (image: TV Grab/ CNN-News18)

The Modi government selected Lt Gen Bipin Rawat as the new army chief bypassing two senior-most generals.

That sparked a row over the breach of the “seniority model” of selection of the chief.

It was a déjà vu of what Indira Gandhi had done in 1983 when Lt Gen SK Sinha was overlooked to pass on the mantle to Lt Gen AS Vaidya.

What we cannot do, even remotely, is to embroil the army in a political controversy. We do not know if Prime Minister Narendra Modi had “merit” in mind and not “seniority” when he selected Lt Gen Rawat. Those who support Modi added copiously to media literature on why Rawat was chosen. His detractors attributed a baser reason: to scuttle the chances of a religious minority to become the first chief from that community. Which to my mind is ridiculous thinking we can do without

What we can do is to pitch for doing away with traditions that allow vestiges of colonial snobbery to continue to breathe in the corridors of bureaucratic power in India.

We did away with introducing the budget in time with the opening of the London Stock Exchange. We now think in terms of advancing the budget date itself, will be making the railway budget part of the general budget from 2017, toying with the idea of changing the business year from the financial year to the calendar year. Pranab Mukherjee’s presidency saw the end of many a colonial practice in Rashtrapati Bhavan.

This is the second occasion when Modi “flouted” tradition. Remember, how abruptly the then foreign secretary, Sujatha Singh, was eased out and S. Jaishankar brought in as her successor.

Jaishankar’s is a curious case. An efficient officer, he was perceived by both Man Mohan Singh and Narendra Modi as “ideal” foreign secretary material. In fact, it is said Singh wanted to make Jaishankar the foreign office boss in 2013 because of the deftness with which he handled both Chinese and American affairs. That would have meant superseding at least two officers including Sujatha Singh. However, Singh could not go ahead because his foreign minister Salman Khurshid was not happy with Jaishankar’s perceived proximity with the Americans. Khurshid thus preferred a neutral officer like Singh who was also the child of a former governor and IPS officer TV Rajeswar. After Modi became Prime Minister, he did not hesitate in bringing in Jaishankar at the first opportune moment. On the face of it, both Prime Ministers perhaps counted on Jaishankar’s merit (or ability to perform) than his seniority.

While on the foreign office, the most controversial top bureaucratic posting pertains to the elevation of Shivshankar Menon foreign secretary in 2006. His family was known as the guardian of the foreign office! His father P. Narayana Menon served as an ambassador to Yugoslavia. His grandfather KPS Menon (Sr) was India’s first foreign secretary. His uncle, KPS Menon (Jr) was a former envoy to China. His great-grandfather Sir C. Sankaran Nair was president of the Indian National Congress in 1897! With such a pedigree, it was no surprise that the youngest Menon superseded over a dozen IFS officers to become foreign secretary. His colleagues, secretary (east) Rajiv Sikri, and the envoys to France and Bangladesh, TCA Rangachari and Veena Sikri, respectively, promptly quit. Veena Sikri moved the Central Administrative Tribunal.

In August 2007, a two-member CAT bench headed by Justice M Ramachandran ruled the government need not follow the seniority principle in the appointment of a foreign secretary. A newspaper reported: “It rejected Sikri`s contention that selection to the post comprised a "promotion", thereby requiring strict compliance with mandatory rules and guidelines laid down by Department of Personnel and Training. "A placement of an officer whereby he is required to discharge duties of a higher caliber, but without a change in pay scale, hardly can be a case of promotion...", observed the bench, also comprising member Neena Ranjan. "When we have materials to assume that claims of officers, who could have come in general zone of consideration (for selection of the Foreign Secretary), have been looked into by the competent body, a contention to the contrary and an allegation that there was a violation of principle of equality under the constitution may not be of real substance," the bench said.”

The CAT ruling was path-breaking. While successive governments were careful about not violating it at least in the case of the foreign service officers, the ruling is yet to become the beacon light for promotions in all government services, including the armed forces.

With reference to the armed forces, the tradition of seniority needs to be done away with for another reason. We have reached a stage where most current generals have no experience of war. Former army chief General VK Singh was the last chief who saw action in India’s last war in 1971. He was commissioned in 1970 and saw action as a lieutenant. General Bikram Singh was the first army chief who did not take part in the last war because he was commissioned after it ended, in 1972. General Dalbir Singh Suhag’s is the same case. So is Lt General Rawat’s.

In the absence of a war record, the “traditional” method of assessing an officer’s leadership qualities has to undergo a change. Which it has. Today, a career officer’s push to the top chair depends on his experience in tackling not war but the “next best thing” – operational commands at the line of control and counter-insurgency operations.(This is similar to foreign secretary candidates nearly always serving as envoys to key countries like the US, Russia, China, France, UK , Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka.) That is probably the reason why the two generals superseded by Rawat, Lt General Praveen Bakshi and Lt General PM Hariz, while being exceptional career officers themselves, would not have made chief. Of the three superbly qualified officers, it is said Lt Gen Rawat had more experience of counter-insurgency and LoC operations. By that criterion, Lt Gen Hariz largely remained in the western and southern sectors, far away from such operations. Would he still have made army chief if there was no supersession? Who knows? But the fact remains in future, the younger breed of army officers who would never have seen war will need to be assessed on criteria other than mere seniority if their leadership qualities are to be harnessed in the best interests of the force. Merit seems the only alternative.

To promote an officer or a bureaucrat strictly by seniority is a clerical affair. The brain is not involved in the exercise. But merit as the criteria requires serious investment in an assessment methodology. That requires a change in the mindset of the politicians and the ministers. Promotions by whim and favoritism need to end. The “zamindari” style of insolence some of our past Prime Ministers exhibited while dealing with bureaucrats or officers is shameful and must be rejected outright.

Let me quote a popular anecdote on Jawahar Lal Nehru. Here it is, verbatim:

A meeting was organized to select the first Commander in Chief of The Indian Army. The then-Prime Minister Jawahar Lal Nehru said, "I think we should appoint a British officer as a general of Indian army as we don't have enough experience to lead the same."
Everyone agreed with the suggestion when one of officers abruptly said, "I have a point, sir."
Nehru said, “Yes, gentleman. You are free to speak.”
“You see, sir, we don’t have enough experience to lead a nation, too. So shouldn’t we appoint a British person as first PM of India?”
The meeting hall suddenly went quiet.
Then, Nehru said, “Are you ready to be the first General of Indian Army?” He got a golden chance to accept the offer, but he refused the same and said, “Sir, we have a very talented army officer, my senior, Lt Gen Cariappa, who is the most deserving among us.”
The army officer who raised his voice against the PM was Lt. General Nathu Singh Rathore, a Lt General in the Indian Army. This anecdote is often told in variations as an example of courage and leadership.

That sums it up. Tradition and arrogance go hand in hand, just like merit and humility.

Contrast this with Nehru’s grandson Rajiv Gandhi who exhibited crassness by publicly humiliating his foreign secretary, the distinguished AP Venkateswaran, telling the media he was get rid of the officer in the officer’s presence! “Soon, you will be talking to a new foreign secretary,” Rajiv announced! Rajiv Gandhi had another dubious distinction, of having politicized the appointment of the IAF chief in 1988. Of the two contenders, the younger Air Marshal SK Mehra was made the chief, superseding the senior Air Marshal MM Singh. Singh had wide operational experience, while Mehra was an administrative veteran. It was said at that time that Rajiv Gandhi was aware of his defence minister KC Pant preferring Mehra. There were media reports saying that attempts were made to make Singh resign before Mehra’s name was announced. Even the IB was apparently roped into the exercise, probably aimed at tarnishing Singh’s reputation. While Mehra’s reputation and abilities were never in doubt, the entire matter left an unpleasant taste.

Rajiv’s mother Indira Gandhi was despotic when it came to playing promotion games. Old timers will recall how in 1972 she deliberately overlooked the case of a popular and distinguished Lt General PS Bhagat – anIndian Victoria Cross awardee during WW II – to succeed Field Marshal Manekshaw and gave a year’s extension to a junior officer, Lt General GG Bewoor, so he could become the army chief. She did the same again in 1983. Lt Gen SK Sinha was the victim. She interfered with the IAF and Navy promotions too. Decorated war hero Air Marshal Shiv Dev Singh was overlooked in 1972-73, paving the way for Air Marshal O.P. Mehra – though a career officer himself -- to be installed as Air chief. We already saw how SK Mehra became IAF chief by superseding Air Marshal MM Singh in 1988 in Rajiv’s tim. Just before demitting office, the V.P. Singh government superseded Vice-Admiral Tony Jain and named his junior Admiral Laxminarayan Ramdas as the successor to Nadkarni in 1990. It was a political drama that involved the political leadership as well as navy brass and began in 1987 in the form of sordid attempts to “play” with the seniority list. Air Chief Marshal Nirmal Chandra Suri's appointment as IAF chief in 1991 was no less controversial, smacking of political interference when PV Narasimha Rao was Prime Minister.

Such shenanigans and conspiracies are largely a thing of the past. At least that is the assumption. A parting thought as we steer ourselves towards “merit” over “seniority”. Take the finance ministry, for instance. You would normally be right in assuming that a person with an economics or finance background would perhaps make a decent finance minister. India has had 27 individuals as 37 finance ministers. However, only three of them – John Mathai, HM Patel and Man Mohan Singh – read economics. Another, IK Gujral, read commerce. Majority of the rest, including Nehru himself, were lawyers, including P Chidambaram and Arun Jaitley!

First Published: December 21, 2016, 2:27 PM IST

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