Every year approximately 3,000 officers get commissioned into the army. Of these, only about 1,000 make it past the first selection board of their career to become colonels.
The numbers keep dwindling up the ladder of promotions, until only about 3 per year reach the rank of an army commander. The table below illustrates just how steep the pyramid of the army’s rank structure is. (7 of the 68 mentioned lieutenant generals are army commanders, who are in a scale between Lt Gen and Gen)
Priority to Merit
Promotion to every rank is based on rigorous scrutiny by the selection boards which decide the comparative merit of all officers of the batch. Apart from the Annual Confidential Reports (ACRs), weightage is accorded to performance on professional courses, gallantry awards and operational service.
A higher weightage is also given to the ACRs in command assignments as opposed to staff postings. The selection is based strictly on the number of vacancies available, and as a result, rejection may be not be because of incompetence, but relative merit.
Like any system, this one can’t be completely free from possible loopholes and inconsistencies. For example, with no clearly quantifiable indicators of performance, the ratings in ACRs are based on perceptions of the initiating and reporting officers and are open to subjectivity. However, barring rare aberrations, it is a system that has worked well for the organisation.
By the time an officer reaches the rank of Lt Gen, he has been cleared by four such selection boards. Hereafter, age and residual service comes into play. To be promoted to an army commander, he is required to have at least two years of residual service on the day of the appointment. The next promotion, i.e. from army commander to chief, has conventionally been based on seniority. An indication of this being more than just a convention but an unwritten norm is the fact that there are no ACRs at the level of army commanders.
The logic for this is unassailable – that anyone capable enough to command a field army is automatically capable enough to take on the role of the army chief. It’s notable that the operational command of formations and troops in war and counter-insurgency operations is vested in the army commanders and not in the chief of army staff.
The army chief, who, as his designation indicates, actually heads the staff that advises the government, carries out procurements, facilitates the coordination of the field armies, and acts as a link between them and the government.
Merit Versus Seniority
- Promotion to ranks based on scrutiny by selection
boards, with due weightage to ACRs and merit being the
- Promotion from army commander to army chief
has been the convention with no ACRs at the level of commanders.
- Army veterans anxious with the government’s
latest move, as the decision smacks of political interference.
- Reason for Lt Gen Bipin Rawat’s
selection is expertise in counter-insurgency ops, though an army
chief is not expected to be an expert in all forms of warfare.
Army Fraternity is Anxious
In going against the convention and selecting the next army chief overlooking two senior officers (Eastern Command chief Lt Gen Praveen Bakshi and Southern Command chief Lt Gen PM Hariz), the government has undoubtedly exercised its prerogative in the matter. And there is also no doubt about the impeccable credentials of their choice.
Yet there is a widespread belief amongst the veteran community that the move was unnecessary and is fraught with the danger of long-term damage to a system that has worked so well for 70 years. This opinion is also shared by a large section of the serving officers, who, for obvious reasons, cannot but remain voiceless in this matter.
Army is Apolitical
It is true that the norm of seniority is not so rigidly adhered for appointments in other government services. But it is also true that in many instances, the officers of these services are known to be aligned with particular political parties. The inevitable reshuffle amongst the top bureaucracy whenever there’s a change in government at the Centre or a state is an indicator of this.
The army has so far remained insulated from this phenomenon, largely because none of the governments have been seen to favour anyone in particular when it came to appointments in the army – with the rare exceptions that actually prove the norm.
The fact remains that in a selection pool where each of the members have undergone such rigorous scrutiny to reach that position, each one is equally competent to take on the role of the chief. In such a case, any criterion of merit cited to select one over the others could be subjective, easily manufactured to tip the scales in favour of one being sought to be favoured.
As per newspaper reports, it is the experience in counter-insurgency operations that tipped the scales for the government. But it can be argued that any such experience is merely tactical in nature – as are, in fact, counter-insurgency operations themselves. The operational responsibility of such operations is of the Northern Army Commander, who in any case is appointed keeping such experience in mind.
Similarly, the Western Army Commander is normally selected keeping in mind experience in mechanised warfare. An army chief, however, cannot be expected to have had experiences in all the forms of warfare that the army is required to undertake. Nor does the nature of his job entail that.
Integrated Headquarters of the Ministry of Defence comprising army headquarters, naval headquarters, air headquarters and defence staff headquarters are associated in the formulation of policies in relation to matters concerning the defence of India and armed forces of the Union. They would be responsible for providing executive direction required in the implementation of policies laid down by the defence ministry. They shall exercise delegated administrative and financial powers. The role and function of the services headquarters ‘now’ designated as integrated headquarters in all other respects remains unchanged.Source: “Allocation of Work, MoD”
The above extract from ‘Allocation of Work within the Ministry of Defence’ elucidates the role of the service headquarters which the chief heads. It’s clear from this that his role is concerned more with policy than actual conduct of operations, which lie under the ambit of the respective army commanders.
This story was first published on The Quint on 19 December 2016. It is being republished as the current Army Chief General Dalbir Singh is set to retire on Saturday, 31 December.
(The writer is a retired colonel of the Indian Army and currently a research fellow at the Ministry of Defence, writing the official history of India’s participation in World War I. He can be reached at @ragarwal. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)