The selection of the Army Chief Lieutenant General Bipin Rawat has predictably generated much heat both in print and electronic media. Social media, too, is full of malicious gossip and ill-informed expert opinions offered by veterans who have short memories.
Nitin Gokhale, who has had considerable experience on military matters, has attempted a historic survey under a piece titled, "A quiet peek in our history".
Supersession and seniority are two buzz words used in most articles or discussions. Let me posit that supersession is a regular feature in most militaries of the world.
For instance, all cadets joining a military academy may have the same basic date of entry. However, only a few would pass out of the academy with a penalty ranging from six months to 18 months due to relegation as a result of failure in academics, injuries sustained during training, lowering of medical category and conduct unbecoming of an officer cadet – which includes moral turpitude. Such cadets are superseded by their term mates who joined on the same date.
No Guarantees of a Promotion
Later, during the performance of young officers is recognised and seniority of up to one year is awarded to those who excel – there are differing models among the three services. Here again, among course mates of the same seniority, the new pecking order is revised and published as a gazette notification .
The entire seniority profile of officers of the same course may undergo significant changes which may later deprive or assist some who reach senior ranks. But military officers live by the credo that no one can be assured of guaranteed promotion. More importantly, no one is guaranteed that he would be serving, or even alive, in the decades to follow.
A beautiful poem called "The laws of the navy" has a stanza which reads, "Count not upon certain promotion, but rather to gain it aspire, though the sight line may end on the target, there cometh perchance a misfire..."
Indeed, misfires have not spared some outstanding officers who have chosen to fade away as suggested in the poem. I have known of Naval officers who did not make the cut for promotion along with their course mates at promotion boards, but who made it right to the top by clearing the subsequent selection board a year later along with their juniors.
Officers Superseded at Every Rank
The selection for promotion to senior ranks of Colonels and above provides three opportunities to be considered before one is told that he will not be placed on the select list.
I am merely restating the fact that, in a pyramidical structure which gets narrower at the top with each selection process, a large number of officers are passed over or superseded at every rank.
In comparison, the civil services have a cylindrical structure which assures promotion up to a senior rank, unless one is unlucky to be caught for activities of moral turpitude or sheer incompetence.
Do remember that an incompetent senior civil servant may take no decision and survive without inflicting or causing death of his colleagues while a less competent military leader would not only cause death of his men but more importantly lose the war. There are no runners up in war – you have to win.
To those who constantly carp on the morale of soldiers due to supersession of an officer at the very pinnacle, it would be instructive to note that the soldier lives with the phenomenon of supersession all his life.
He looks up to his immediate superior and leader who leads him into battle. So long as he has a good leader he is ready to offer the supreme sacrifice.
Although, some officers have challenged their supersession in courts of law much against the service ethos, I cannot remember a single instance of their subordinates voicing their concern in an open show of grief. Yet, we have had a chief who challenged the accuracy of his date of birth in order to gain more time in the chair, only to be reprimanded by the highest court of law. That conduct would go down as unofficer-like in that he fought a case for himself and not for the service as a whole or for betterment of his soldiers.
Such misdemeanour hurts the morale of a disciplined community, members of which look up to the leader to set an example. A question now arises about the politicisation of the military.
Seniority Is a Lazy Solution for Promotions
Apropos the question of deciding on seniority-cum-merit and deep selection for the highest rank, the military would certainly appreciate consideration of merit.
Seniority per se is a lazy solution to the problem as mere date of birth would decide the line of succession for years to come.
That is neither good for the service nor the individual who is well placed on the list.
But then creating a process which quantifies, or at best identifies, merit is a greater challenge. It cannot be subjective and yet it is difficult to rate human qualities so accurately.
All things being equal, the Indian Parliament has little or no experts on matters military to set up an institutional process like the senate hearings consisting of members who have participated in military training or service in the armed forces. That is unlikely to happen in India in the near future.
The best that can be done is to generate a discussion among experts who have dealt with HRD issues of the Indian Armed forces and not on electronic or print media-that is, until a feasible and sensible process is identified by those who have managed the process and not by veterans who have never had to face the realities at Delhi.
(The writer is a former Commander-in-Chief, Southern Naval Command. He can be reached @scsbangara. 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.)