On Sunday the army chief, General V K Singh, raised an intriguing question while talking to schoolchildren in Jaipur. “An army of deer led by a lion is to be feared more than [an] army of lions led by a deer,” said the general.
My first thought as I mulled over this profundity was: can a deer that has served all his life in an army full of deer suddenly transform into a lion at the top? Alternatively, could a lion serving in an army full of deer be promoted somehow to the top slot?
Common sense would rule out both eventualities. An army full of deer would only promote a deer to the top, just as an army of lions would always have a lion in command. But the Indian Army presents a paradoxical third alternative. The numerous lions in this excellent army serve up to a certain rank. Then, around the time they become colonels or brigadiers, something strange happens: the lions start turning into deer!
The General V K Singh affair illuminates the generals in a harsh and unforgiving light. The generals emerge as riven with infighting; they undermine meritocracy by promoting loyalists; and, perhaps most worryingly, they compromise the army’s readiness for war by meekly acquiescing in crippling shortfalls of equipment and ammunition.
Over a drink, ask any junior or mid-ranking officer, and you will find disillusionment with senior commanders and with a working environment that rewards the safe and predictable rather than the bold and unexpected. Recent controversies have exacerbated murmurs that generals only think about themselves. Talk to the generals, on the other hand, and they express disappointment over the “poor quality” of young officers. There is a clear disconnect between the two ends of the rank pyramid, between the lions and the deer.
This observation is fraught with personal danger, since my army batch-mates have just been evaluated, and many of them cleared, for promotion to major general! Knowing these gentlemen as intimately as a course-mate, comrade and friend of many years does, I acknowledge with some satisfaction that the army has homed in on the high achievers. But identifying good lions is of little use if they begin turning into deer.
At a time when many soldiers – serving and retired – bitterly regard themselves as under attack from the defence ministry, the media, and even the judiciary, it is time for India’s finest and most resilient institution to look within rather than without. What are the systemic flaws in the army structure that disempowers its leaders and binds them in mental shackles?
The first is a growing culture of conformity: an intolerance of alternative viewpoints that is the natural attribute of under-confident commanders. This causes the boss’ viewpoint (itself springing from what he thinks his boss’ viewpoint might be) to become the viewpoint of everyone down the chain — effectively killing any prospect of internal reform. The system cannot be challenged from within, since any discussion about alternative leadership models presupposes that the existing model might be less than perfect.
It is nobody’s case that the army should encourage dissent; no military does. But great armies tolerate, and actively encourage, non-conformism. This is essential, not just for operational innovativeness that would keep the enemy guessing in war, but also for throwing up essential bottom-up challenges to the status quo. Totalitarian Conformism, as today’s army leadership style might be termed, reduces the landscape of professional and personal creativity to a dull wasteland where the fabled “dashing young officer” is marked not by flashes of innovative genius but by his quickness in agreeing with the boss.
Young officers allow themselves to be bound by these shackles because of the army’s insularity. Segregated from the world outside, and with little realisation of their actual worth, junior officers are reluctant to buck the system. Given the conviction that promotion is the only measure of success, they toe the line rather than risk professional hara-kiri by setting out to change the system. Their outlook can only change with exposure. Sending out junior officers on secondments and deputations – with academic institutions; successful government enterprises; media organisations; the police forces – will enrich the military’s bloodline with external leadership and decision-making cultures. It will also provide officers with the confidence that is required to challenge the status quo and to create a bottom-up dynamic that forces the generals to respond like lions rather than continue like deer.
Will the generals permit such a change? Most probably not since empowering junior officers and encouraging non-conformism are threatening prospects. Good reasons are ready at hand to shoot down such “unworkable” and “impractical” ideas: a shortage of officers; inter-se seniority issues during secondment; and so on. It would, therefore, be necessary for the government to intervene. We’re waiting for Godot.
The phrase “lions led by donkeys” was used by the Germans to describe the British army during World War I. It encapsulated their impression of incompetent generals letting down the brave and dedicated British soldier.