We need to select our military leaders on the basis of merit, not seniority.
India’s nation-building process in the field of its leadership selection will be considered to have reached maturity when merit becomes the primary factor in the selection process. Judging relative merit is a challenge, but it can be managed by relying on a system of collective judgment, as long as the composition and functioning of the collective body is proficient, honest and balanced. Some degree of maturity has been achieved for selection of executive leadership in government. However, in the selection of the top two rungs of the military hierarchy, especially the Chiefs and the Commanders in Chiefs (C in Cs), where merit is subordinated to seniority, the process still lives in a feudal age and needs review and reform.
On April 23, 2015, the Raksha Mantri while addressing the Unified Commanders Conference remarked, “the threat is within you.” It was a statement that left no doubt that internal military reform was imperative. Selection of higher military leadership should top the list, especially with unsavory issues like the Adarsh scam that even involved some Chiefs of the Armed Forces.
The prime argument asserted to privilege seniority over merit has hinged on the necessity for maintaining the armed forces as an apolitical institution, a contention that rests on the notion that it would otherwise open up the possibility of political favoritism, with military leaders attempting to cozy up to politicians, thus politicizing the military as an institution. Such a reaction was witnessed when an Army Chief was selected in 2016 by disregarding the seniority factor. While there is some merit in the argument, it is based on the lack of self-confidence of the political leadership to perform a vital national security function – the selection of its military leadership, which is an important aspect of their role. The heart of the issue is whether the imagined hazard of politicization and political favoritism overshadows the necessity to select on merit.
It is noteworthy that seniority has ceased to be the prime factor in the selection of Secretaries to head the departments of government. The Appointments Committee of the Cabinet (ACC), headed by the Prime Minister, chooses from a panel, and seniority is not always the reigning principle. Although the same system is applicable for Chiefs and C in Cs, the practice of seniority-based selection has, with few notable exceptions, endured. It is a political practice that is need of revision.
Once an officer attains a three-star rank, the existing system allows for an automatic promotion to the level of C in C and Chief because the ascent is a matter of date of birth and seniority determined at time of entry into service, rather than being one that is subject to human judgment. As long as the individual stays out of trouble, merit is apparently of no consequence. Theoretically, interested parties can identify an individual officer at the level of Brigadiers/Major Generals or their equivalent and guide their ascent to the three star ranks. Once there, it is virtually a free ride to the top. A few months after the appointment of the previous Army Chief in 2014, speculation in the media, based on the prevailing political practice regarding the next two chiefs, is evidence enough that not only would the speculation be bang on, but, importantly, it should set the alarm bells ringing and heralded the urgent need for change.
In the present system, a selection board consisting of all C in Cs and headed by the Chief recommends promotion to three-star ranks, which is then approved at the political level by the Defence Minister and the ACC. Thereafter no selection board is held for the appointment of the C in C, which is the penultimate rung in the ladder and by any reckoning is a promotion in status though not in rank, and entails shouldering substantially enhanced powers and responsibilities, being crucial Theatre Commanders, tasked to prepare for and direct war. Instead, a panel of the senior most eligible three-stars is sent by the Defence Minister for approval by the ACC. Length of residual service, at the time of appointment, is a crucial eligibility factor but varies between services, with the requirement being two, one and one-and-a-half years for the Army, Air Force and Navy respectively. Such a variation between services is an anomaly that requires standardization.
It is understood that there is apparently a proposal under consideration by the Ministry of Defence to standardize the residual service to eighteen months. This is a retrograde step as the ideal would be to maximize tenures. The army, the largest service, has already got two years’ tenure as the minimum requirement. The Air Force and the Navy should have been brought to par. India has presently fourteen Operational Commands: the Army has six, the Air Force has four, the Navy has two and Integrated Commands have two . Another three inter-service Commands will probably be established in due course. One does not have to be a mathematician to imagine the increase in the pace of turn over, because there would be an unpredictable increase in the percentage of C in Cs who would have eighteen months’ tenure with at least three to four months spent on familiarization and retirement farewells. This would have a deleterious impact on the process of creating synergy between the three services.
In the absence of Integrated Commands, reducing the tenure of C in Cs will further deepen the problem of joint functioning. It is also worth noting that except for the Navy, the Army and Air force have been struggling quite unsuccessfully to increase the tenure in all Command appointments from the Battalion to the Corps equivalent. A deliberate decision to reduce the C in Cs tenure criteria only adds to the existing bane of short tenures at lower levels.
Later, once Integrated Commands are established, a procedure to ensure a minimum of two years’ tenure, irrespective of age, as is being done for vital appointments like Foreign and Defence secretary, could be adopted, to obviate the residual service eligibility criteria. This would effectively remove the advantage conferred by date of birth from the selection process.
The selection to the C in C status is a political choice and though the system allows for flexibility, the established norm has been that seniority rules. It would be fair to expect the political leadership to select on seniority, because of insufficient knowledge about individuals. (What exists on record does not lend itself easily to discernment of merit. Therefore, considering the fact that the C in C appointment is a promotion in status, there is a very strong case for holding a promotion board to select them, which will at the same time prevent a free run to the top two rungs and thus improve the quality of senior leadership. The promotion board could be an inter-service board and consist of the three Chiefs. Having the three Chiefs in the selection board rather than the C in Cs of the respective service could sharpen the inter-service element in the selection process and preclude narrow service-specific considerations.
It could be argued that the existing system has produced outstanding leadership and any move to reform will politicize the army, as has perhaps happened with the bureaucracy. This, however, is a statist argument that wants to foreclose the option of undertaking measures to modernize India so that it moves away from the feudal mindset of seniority and privilege through birth. The resistance works against the first principle of selection to vital government appointments – the privileging of merit over other attributes – and therefore begs the question: what can be done to alter the status quo?
Two measures are warranted. Firstly, for the selection of Chiefs, the political leadership has to move away from the propensity of selecting only according to seniority and exercise their choice through the means of a deep deliberation it deserves. This is the practice that needs change and will depend on their self-confidence to make objective choices. It is a political call that needs no policy change but internal debate at the political level. Secondly, introduce a selection board for promotion to the C in C rank with the three Chiefs constituting the selection board and after benchmarking two years residual service as eligibility criteria for all the services thus achieving joint services standardization and, more importantly, safeguarding merit as the predominant factor.
India’s march to modernity will necessarily involve dismantling entrenched feudalism that privileges birth and seniority over merit. The selection of the senior military leadership should not remain tethered to a feudal framework that underlies existing practices. Modern India must embrace merit over everything else. No efforts should be spared in improving the quality of military leadership, on which, hangs the effectiveness of India’s military power. It is a low hanging fruit.