18 May 2019

In selecting service Chief, merit is crucial

Air Marshal Brijesh D Jayal (retd)

When appointment to the post of Chief in any of the armed forces is made, there is much debate on whether the government has adhered to the tradition of seniority and, if not, then allegations and counter-allegations fly thick and fast. This leaves the moral fabric of the forces weakened and shows the government of the day in a poor light. While meekly sticking to the seniority route may be the government’s alibi for appearing to be fair and objective and avoiding controversy, the impact of such a lazy approach on the national security firmament merits a closer look. 

There can be no dispute that while selecting individuals for highest-level military appointments, the system should be objective and fair and, to the extent possible within the defence ministry, transparent. It is important, however, that these attributes should not relate to an individual’s interest but to that of the service concerned and, more importantly, to the security interests of the nation. It is this conflict between personal interest and the larger national one that lies at the heart of the ‘seniority versus merit’ debate. 

Occasions in the past when the seniormost contenders for the post of Chief have been overlooked have invariably been accompanied by whispers of lobbying, favouritism, political interference or even seniority being contrived. 

In large parts, such criticism was not devoid of merit. Not surprisingly, absent of any extraneous interests, the governments would prefer to choose the principle of seniority. If recent events, however, were any indicator, it would now appear that the government has chosen to bite the bullet and opt for merit over seniority. If this assessment is indeed true, then it augurs well for the health of the armed forces and the nation’s security interests.

When the current Army Chief was appointed late in 2016, there was considerable criticism in the media on the government having bypassed two of his distinguished colleagues, both of whom were senior in service. Recently, when the successor to the present Navy Chief, who lays down office at the end of May 2019, was announced, bypassing a senior colleague, the latter approached the Armed Forces Tribunal, questioning his supersession. A media report now mentions that the government has set in motion the process of deep selection from among five contenders for succeeding the present Air Chief, who relinquishes office in September. Being the election season, tongues are even wagging on linkages to the political controversy surrounding the Rafale procurement.

For a greater understanding of the subject, it is perhaps useful to look at the armed forces’ rank structure, which resembles a steep pyramid with a base of some 42,000 Army, 10,000 Navy and 12,000 IAF officers, and a pinnacle of one in each service. To traverse this through eight ranks, the promotion system, of necessity, centres largely on the principle of merit over seniority. As one approaches still higher ranks, and the pyramid gets steeper, aspects like employability also become important criteria, indicating that not just past performance, but experience and potential to fill specific demands of higher-level appointments and responsibilities also come into play.

With such a highly competitive promotion system, those who do make it to the three-star-rank posts are already the cream of the force, yet those eligible must then compete for elevation to a commander’s post — against stiff merit-based criteria. It is on the shoulders of these commanders that the war-fighting potential of the nation resides and it is only fair that the nation chooses the very meritorious for this task. And finally, it is from among the top few commanders that a Chief is selected and whilst experience as operational commander is a pre-requisite for eligibility, many more military attributes and personal qualities become relevant to do justice to leading a force and being the top military adviser to the government. As long as such requirements are objectively defined, it is fair to say that among the handful of commanders from whom the Chief is selected, it is well nigh impossible for two being equal and hence any conflict on the final choice.

If now a lobby promoting seniority over merit rears its head, clearly this has more to do with individual interests, overriding national security ones. The pool of commanders from which a selection is made is already a highly rated lot and being passed over for this final lap in no way diminishes their worth. Indeed, this is not a case of supersession, but of the best man winning.

Having given the bogey of seniority a burial, there remains a question of fairness and bi-partisan political consensus of the process through which a service Chief is appointed. While it should be the responsibility of the MoD to take care of the former by unambiguously defining the criteria for the top slot, it is the latter that has so far been absent in our parliamentary system and judging by the highly polarised political climate, this step assumes significance. 

While it is the prerogative of the government to announce its choice, it would be in the fitness of things if an Empowered Parliamentary Standing Committee on Defence gives consent to the government’s choice through a confidential meeting and discussion with the Chief-designate. The US example, where the President — with the advice and consent of the Senate — makes such appointments is certainly worth emulating. This will not only demonstrate the maturity of our republic’s civil-military relations, but also bury the unfortunate whisper campaigns that surround many a Chief’s elevation.

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