Armed Forces

Farewell to norms

Print edition : January 20, 2017

Lt Gen. Bipin Rawat, a December 13, 2013 photograph. Against norms, two senior commanders have been superseded to appoint him the Chief of the Army Staff. Photo: Sushanta Patronobish

Lt Gen. Praveen Bakshi. Ministry officials were quoted in newspapers as saying that the superseded commanders lacked field experience in counterterrorism and anti-insurgency operations. Photo: By Special Arrangement

Lt Gen. P.M. Hariz. Ministry officials were quoted in newspapers as saying that the superseded commanders lacked field experience in counterterrorism and anti-insurgency operations. Photo: BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

The appointment of the next Army chief superseding two commanders has become a contentious issue.

THERE can be nothing as predictable and routine as the appointment of the next Army chief. The procedure is simple: the senior-most Army commander becomes the Army chief. At the Army headquarters, the succession line gets prepared years in advance, the procedure for shortlisting is completed months ahead, and the name is usually announced two or three months before the incumbent chief’s retirement. But even in as staid a situation as this, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has managed to stir up a controversy, thanks to his predilection for an extremely personalised way of functioning. Two senior Army commanders, Eastern Army Commander Lieutenant General Praveen Bakshi, who is the senior-most, and Southern Army Commander, Lt Gen. P.M. Hariz, have been superseded to appoint Vice Chief of the Army Staff, Lt Gen. Bipin Rawat, the Chief of the Army Staff (COAS). This has stirred up a hornet’s nest because the final decision on the selection of the Army chief is taken by the Appointments Committee of the Cabinet, which is headed by the Prime Minister and has senior Ministers as members.

This is only the second time that seniority has been overlooked in the appointment of the Army chief. In 1983, Indira Gandhi favoured Lt Gen. A.S. Vaidya to the post of Army chief, overlooking the Vice Chief of the Army, Lt Gen. S.K. Sinha, as he had advised against the deployment of the Army in insurgency-ridden Punjab at that time.

Explaining the appointment of Lt Gen. Rawat as the COAS, a Defence Ministry official said: “The government of the day takes the final decision choosing the most suitable officer on the basis of various aspects of the security situation in the country and the future scenario. In the current security situation, counterterrorism and counter-insurgency are key issues. Therefore, the background and operational experience of officers on the panel were considered in depth while selecting the next COAS. Lt Gen. Rawat fulfils this criteria by virtue of his operational assignments as Commanding Officer of 19 Division in Jammu and Kashmir and his outstanding track record and his familiarity with the functioning of the Army headquarters and the Ministry of Defence in his capacity as Vice Chief…. His general dynamism has also played a role in tipping the scales in his favour.”

The official added that the “Appointments Committee of the Cabinet is the authority to make the final selection based on the inputs provided by the service headquarters and the Ministry, as well as any other additional information that may assist in the selection of the services chiefs, for the assignment involves strategic management of national security. In the selection and nomination of COAS-designate by the government, due process had been followed, considering prevailing security environment and requirements.”

Ministry officials, who had been left to defend the indefensible, were quoted in various newspapers as saying that the superseded commanders lacked field experience in counterterrorism and anti-insurgency operations. This effectively suggested that not-so-competent officers had been elevated to the level of Army commanders, a preposterous suggestion if the rigorous process through which officers reach such high levels is concerned. Their argument also added fuel to the already raging turf war within the Army echelons as it seemed to suggest that officers from the Infantry, to which Lt Gen. Rawat belongs, were superior to those from the Armoured Corps or the Mechanised Infantry, to which the superseded officers belong.

Obviously, a war of words has broken out. While the opposition parties have accused the Prime Minister of politicising the Army by saying that the appointment of Lt Gen. Rawat was done with an eye on the upcoming Uttarakhand Assembly elections, veterans have criticised the move by saying that it will encourage sycophancy among ambitious military officers.

“The decision of the present government to bypass the seniority criterion is unfortunate because it will encourage military officers to become sycophants. Besides, the reasons cited by the government are stupid because they seem to suggest that the other two Army commanders are not as good. The fact remains that when one reaches the level of Army commander, one is as good as the other. The long-term implication of this faulty decision will be that the political and military leadership will start messing up with each other,” said Major General (retd) Satbir Singh, chairman of the Indian Ex-Servicemen Movement.

Satbir Singh, who has trained all the three as commandant at the Indian Military Academy (IMA), Dehradun, said all of them were exceptionally brilliant officers and the government should have stuck to the time-tested norm of seniority in picking the next chief in order to avoid unnecessary controversy.

Group Captain (retd) T.P. Srivastava, who also has known all the three officers personally since their cadet days, rues the fact that the government has compounded its folly by trying to give explanations. “The first mistake [of superseding] is compounded by their explanation that counter-insurgency and counterterrorism are the criteria that finally clinched the deal for Lt Gen. Rawat. What happens if there is a war tomorrow on the western border? Will they start looking for a new chief who can lead the Army to fight in the plains or in the desert?” he asked. According to him, it definitely is the government’s prerogative to appoint the Army chief and there should have been no further discussion on that except for asserting that the best among a group of equals has been appointed.

No other Prime Minister before Modi has used the Army as brazenly to further his political agenda. It may be mentioned here that as the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) prime ministerial candidate, Modi, addressing a rally of ex-servicemen at Rewari, Haryana, in September 2013, promised to solve all their problems, including the implementation of their long-pending demand of One Rank One Pension, within a month of coming to power. The veterans were so emotionally swayed that they wholeheartedly supported the BJP.

But more than two years later, OROP has not been fully implemented. The veterans have been sitting on a dharna at Jantar Mantar in New Delhi since June 14, 2015, demanding OROP.

In another extremely controversial decision, former Army chief, General (retd) V.K. Singh, who joined the BJP within one year of his retirement, was not only fielded as a Lok Sabha candidate in 2014 but was subsequently rewarded with a ministerial berth, a move many described as one that has added to the politicisation of the Army to a great extent. Modi would do well to leave the Army alone because politicisation of this institution is fraught with grave dangers for the country’s security.