The public battle over the army chief's age bears a larger lesson for the government: the undesirability of letting a date of birth determine which generals are appointed to senior military command and, especially, to the crucial appointments of army, navy and air force chiefs. As India now knows, the army chief (like those of the navy and air force) is appointed based not on merit but on when he was born. When a serving chief retires, his senior-most army commander is elevated to the top job. Only once has the government deviated from this: in appointing Lt Gen A S Vaidya instead of Lt Gen S K Sinha in 1983. Rather than exercise judgement in selecting a suitable chief from its 85-odd lieutenant generals, the government acts as if all of them are equally good, or bad.
Rather less known is the fact that the army chief’s key subordinates — i.e., army commanders and, under them, corps commanders — are also appointed based on when they were born. Of the officers promoted to lieutenant general, only those with at least three years of residual service (i.e., those below 57 years) get to command corps, while the rest of them warm desks. This even though a corps commander’s tenure is just a year. After commanding a corps, a lieutenant general is elevated to army commander only if he has two years of residual service.
These are not mere guidelines that are waived for exceptional officers, but ironclad rules that waste exceptional military talent for insufficient reason. An example of this is currently playing out. Lieutenant General Syed Ata Hasnain was brought in as Srinagar corps commander in autumn 2010 to staunch three years of bloodletting on the Kashmiri street. He successfully calmed tempers and dramatically boosted the army’s image, achieving in Kashmir what Stanley McChrystal and David Petraeus could not in Afghanistan. Based purely on performance, Hasnain is an outstanding field commander. But, since he has less than two years of service left, he will not even make army commander, leave alone army chief. Instead, he will push papers in Delhi.
This ill-conceived “date of birth” approach to top-rank promotions sits atop a bitterly resented quota system in the ranks just below. The army’s “Mandalised” system of promotion quotas (described in this newspaper’s Weekend supplement on January 14) grants promotions at the key ranks of colonel and brigadier not to accomplished officers with the best career records; but distributes them between various arms on a pro-rata basis. That guarantees each arm — the infantry, the artillery, the armoured corps, etc., — proportionate representation in those crucial ranks, regardless of merit. Every promotion board rejects some outstanding officers because of “lack of vacancies” in that arm; while officers with notably inferior records get promoted because their arm’s vacancies must be filled.
No other country that I know of fetters its senior military command so. The United States government, like most others, selects its top soldier from a broad panel of generals, often picking up a relatively junior officer with an exceptional service record and the potential for bridging the sometimes opposing interests of the military and the political class.
Such systems of “deep selection” create incentives amongst the generals for bold decision-making and eye-catching performance. But Indian generals who are in the running to be chief (by virtue of their correctly aligned dates of birth!) need only to ensure that they don’t shoot themselves in the foot. This encourages conservative decision-making, the absolute avoidance of risk, and the “servicing” of personal relationships to ensure that nothing derails their candidacy.
The argument against “deep selection” sounds superficially convincing: that a compromised polity and an inherently anti-army bureaucracy can hardly be trusted to select the military chiefs. This argument suggests that dhotiwalas and babus (the military’s mocking reference to politicians and bureaucrats) would unleash patrimonialism and politicisation within an organisation that has remained relatively honest and functional only because of its complete segregation.
This argument is flawed, not least in regarding the selection of senior officers free of such influence — something that has been disproved in the debate over the army chief’s birth date. By promoting a chasm between the military and the political and bureaucratic elites, the military damages its own interests. With no political and bureaucratic investment in a military chief (we didn’t select him, he just happened to be born on a certain date and came up the chain) the civil-military relationship remains fundamentally adversarial. Any reform measure — the creation of a Chief of Defence Staff (CDS); an integrated defence staff (IDS) headquarters, or the cross-posting of officers between the MoD and the IDS — founders on the rocks of inter-agency hostility.
A system of “deep selection” would galvanise the military’s leadership; lead to longer tenures for service chiefs, during which they could drive home key initiatives; promote a meritocracy from the top down; and, most importantly, create an incentive for elected representatives and government bureaucrats to pay closer attention to the military and the management of defence. For entrenched interests within the military, greater civilian involvement in promotions and appointments is threatening. But this must be the lesson that emerges from the current unsavoury face-off.