Figuring out the state of an army’s morale is easy. All it takes is a couple of drinks with two groups of people: the officers and the enlisted men. If the chatter is mainly about sports and professional competitions, ongoing training and about how much tougher and smarter they are than their rival units, morale is high. If talk centres on pay and allowances, promotions and postings and on the world outside the army, you can bet money that morale is low. Applying this yardstick to the Indian Army I believe the morale of officers is low, while that of the jawans is high.
In this gloomy assessment I have illustrious company. The new Chief of Army Staff, General VK Singh, on assuming office on the 1st of April, has wisely identified the army’s “internal health” as his key focus. Pointing out that an internally vibrant army would easily swat aside external threats, the army chief has promised to revitalize traditions, core values and the army’s ethos.
Earlier chiefs, some as well-intentioned as General VK Singh, have embarked on similar paths. General K Sundarji, on taking over as chief in 1986, wrote to army officers individually, urging them to follow their professional convictions and promising to tolerate dissent. But that led nowhere as actions failed to follow words. Today, as the new chief implicitly accepts, the army has become a personality cult where officers either conform to the inclinations of the boss or get weeded out. Originality and eccentricity, those priceless attributes of a successful military leader, have been rendered extinct by a dull, humourless routine that is set by what the boss thinks his boss wants.
Keeping the officers in line is a terrible God called the Annual Confidential Report before which even the brightest and most capable officer must kneel or be scythed down. While annual reports are an evaluation tool in many professions, the army has accorded the ACR absolute control of an officer’s career. Considering that this primacy is born of the army’s laudable quest for an impartial, empirical evaluation system, it is ironic that the ACR has turned into a monster of subjectivity. If the boss is unhappy with an officer — for any reason whatsoever — a single lukewarm ACR can sink a brilliant career.
Dismantling this tyranny, and unlocking the potential of his officer corps, is the task ahead for General Singh. This is easier said than done. Blocking any radical change is the tribal ethos of the Indian Army. An officer belongs first to his regiment or battalion; only after that is he an Indian Army officer. An army chief’s first duty is towards the regiment and battalion that nurtured him; reforming the army conflicts with the role of regimental patriarch.
When General JJ Singh, an infantry officer from the Maratha Light Infantry, took over as chief, the honour guard that welcomed him to South Block was from the Marathas. So was his aide-de-camp and most of his personal staff. The tenure of his artillery successor, General Deepak Kapoor, saw the Corps of Artillery quickly muscling out the infantry as the flavour of the month. Upwardly mobile artillery officers were quickly posted into friendly environments, under “friendly” superiors, to ease their paths towards higher ranks.
These are only the most recent examples of the army’s longstanding patriarchal tradition that General VK Singh can now embrace or dismantle. A key step would be the creation of a clearly enunciated promotion policy, printed as a manual and sanctioned by the government, to ensure that each successive chief cannot tinker with the policy to suit his constituency. Today, 63 years after independence, the military has no promotion manual; policy exists only in a constantly revised torrent of letters from the Military Secretary’s branch.
The other major change that General VK Singh could implement is the reversing of promotion quotas to higher rank: the “Mandalisation” of the army as it is evocatively referred to. From the institution of the Prussian General Staff in the early 18th century, professional militaries have employed the criterion of merit alone to select their senior command. For over half a century, so did the Indian Army; but recently, in a burst of patrimonial fervour, quotas were instituted to ensure that each combat arm got its share of the senior ranks. Initiated by artillery and infantry chiefs to safeguard the interests of their officers, the quotas are now favouring less talented officers of other arms.
Few chiefs would voluntarily divest themselves of power but, paradoxically, the institution of the COAS would be greatly strengthened by transparency and the absence of discretion in promotions and postings. It would also free army chiefs from accusations of prejudice; a lever that Ministry of Defence officials — and in one well-known case, a defence minister — have successfully employed to demand favours for their own candidates.