For a change, the appointment of the Indian Army Chief is drawing as much attention within India as did the appointment of the Pakistan Army Chief.
That was just three weeks ago. Coincidentally, both the new Chiefs Gen Qamar Bajwa of Pakistan and Gen (Designate) Bipin Rawat were both brigade commanders of their respective contingents with the United Nations Peacekeeping Operations in Congo in 2008-9, although they did not serve together.
- Traditionally, the selection of the Army Chief follows the seniority route
- The NDA Government to that extent has tried to change this by going deeper in the selection of the Army Chief
- Perhaps the Government felt that the threats of the time demanded someone like Gen Bipin Rawat
Gen Rawat takes over as India’s new Army Chief on 1 Jan 2017, but not without a slight controversy involving the overlooking of two officers senior to him in the lineup; Lt Gen Praveen Bakshi of the Armoured Corps currently GOC-in-C Eastern Command and Lt Gen PM Hariz GOC-in-C Southern Command.
Both are reputed and known to be very highly competent officers thrown up as a result of the Army’s competitive selection system. For the steeply hierarchical pyramid that is the Army’s command structure, selection for higher ranks leaves even some of the best by the wayside. As an example, of the 800-odd officers commissioned with me, only 13 were selected to be Lt Gens of the General Cadre from where the Chief is selected.
Traditionally, the selection of the Army Chief has followed the seniority route except once when Gen Arun Vaidya was promoted over the head of Lt Gen SK Sinha to succeed Gen KV Krishna Rao in 1983. However, for some time there has been discussion within the Army that the seniority system does not throw up the best to head the 1.3 million Army.
Even those who become Army Commanders (colloquially regional commanders) by virtue of seniority and the residual service rule (two years residual service mandatory to be an Army Commander) do not allow genuine merit to be followed for the selection of the Army Chief.
The NDA Government to that extent has tried to change this by going deeper in the selection of the Army Chief, but the true reform will be felt when there is even deeper selection by merit for appointing the seven Army Commanders and Vice Chief. That will eventually happen and will be a truly transformative step.
Notwithstanding the above, there is a mini political storm brewing on the appointment, and that needs to abate with some rationale being presented to the public.
The first is that the principle of deep selection and merit over seniority needs to be established in all senior government appointments. However, just as in the case of the CVC, perhaps the Government may itself wish to bring in a consultative process to allow political consensus.
There have been many suggestions about constituting a non-partisan selection body for this so that it seems politically fair too.
Justifying Gen Rawat’s elevation is not too difficult. While all three General Officers have a comparable record, Gen Rawat’s experience is almost entirely in the operational domain of asymmetric warfare – the crux of hybrid threats that abound today. Besides being a Sword of Honour winner at the IMA, he attended the US Command and General Staff College, Fort Leavenworth.
He was the Commander of the Indian Brigade in the Congo under the UN flag. His command assignments have all been in the operational environment. A company commander at Uri on the LoC, battalion commander at Kibithu on the Line of Actual Control or LAC, and brigade/sector commander with Rashtriya Rifles in the high octane Sopore sector.
In 2011 when I was presented with the prospect of having a new General Officer Commanding in Baramulla, one of my most crucial divisions and the one which I too commanded, I had no hesitation in asking for then Maj Gen Bipin Rawat by name. Army HQ relented and therefore he worked closely with me, displaying an outstanding understanding of J&K.
Even today he is fondly remembered by the people in all the areas he has served. He went on to be the Head of operations at HQ Eastern Command and then commanded the Corps at Dimapur.
It is he who launched the force that raided the NSCN (K) camps along the border with Myanmar in early July 2016. He was appointed GOC-in-C Southern Command early in 2016 and then brought to Army HQ as Vice Chief of the Army Staff in Aug 2016.
It is the prerogative of the government of the day to perceive threats to national security and decide how they are to be met. If one of the ways of doing that is perceived as the requirement of a nuts-and-bolts experienced commander at the head of the Army, then one can’t find fault with that.
2016 has not been a particularly good year from the National Security perspective and the Army too has suffered more casualties than it has in the last eight years.
Arresting this and developing options to take the battle to the adversary's mind and domain is a priority the government has decided to follow.
For that, an Army Chief experienced in these domains will be an asset. In the same breath I may mention that senior officers of the Indian Army are quite capable of functioning in diverse environment and threats with necessary advice and support.
It’s just perhaps that the Government felt that the threats of the time demanded someone like Gen Bipin Rawat, and the decision of the Government needs to be respected.
(The writer is a veteran Lieutenant General, who commanded the Srinagar based 15 Corps. He is now associated with Vivekanand International Foundation and the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies. The views expressed above are of the author’s own and The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)