Ajai Shukla’s article ‘Soldier Heal Thyself’ in Business Standard talks about ‘Mandalisation’ of the Army as one of the many ills that ail its appraisal and promotion systems. The previous Blogitorial on this Blog had also spoken of the urgent requirement of overhauling these. I would like to dwell a little further on the ‘pro rata’ policy responsible for this ‘Mandalisation’ – the background, possible reasons, and its impact.
Prior to the introduction of this policy, the Combat Arms i.e. Armoured Corps, Infantry and Mechanised Infantry comprised the ‘General Cadre’, with no distinction amongst them for promotional vacancies. Selected officers from Combat Support Arms like Artillery, Engineers and Signals, based on merit, were also given the option to join the general cadre, giving them the opportunity to rise to the highest ranks. Each service had its own fixed vacancies for higher ranks for appointments that could be held only by officers of the particular service, such as the head of service in each formation HQ. Each combat support arm also had such vacancies – such as Chief Engineer or MG Arty. The only specified vacancies within general cadre were at the Line Directorates of each arm and their Schools of Instruction. Even within this, the Mechanised Infantry had the smallest share as it was clubbed with the Armoured Corps in the Line Directorate, and had a smaller centre commanded by a Brigadier.
Somewhere along the line, resentment grew amongst the ranks of Infantry about the disproportionate number of Armoured Corps officers getting the share of the general cadre vacancies. This feeling came to a head in the early nineties, when the COAS and five Army Commanders at one time were from the Armoured Corps, and the sixth Army Commander and Vice Chief from Artillery. Thus, the biggest fighting arm in terms of strength, which was also bearing the brunt of the Counter Insurgency operations in North East and J&K, had no representation at the upper echelons of command. Remember, this was just before the Rashtriya Rifles was raised, and therefore the deployment of officers from other arms in such operations was therefore limited to a handful, and those also on staff duties in formation HQs.
While the chagrin of Infantry officers was justified, the causes attributed to this state of affairs was not entirely fair or true. The perception was that all officers in the Armoured Corps received inflated ACRs as a matter of routine, and that there was a high degree of parochialism within the Corps, leading to better promotional prospects. Instances of inflated ACRs and parochialism, while not completely absent in the Armoured Corps as in any other, were really not the real reason behind Armoured Corps officers ‘doing well’. The real reasons lay in the quality of initial intake at some points in time, better professional exposure due to nature of the arm’s operational roles, and environment in the Armoured Regiments being by and large more conducive to professional development. Each of these needs some explanation.
Till a few years back (before the impact of ‘pro rata’ took its toll), Armoured Corps was the most sought after arm amongst the Gentlemen Cadets passing out of IMA / OTA. In almost all courses that passed out, more than half the GCs from the ‘Super Block’ i.e. in the first ten or so in the overall order of merit of the course, opted for it. In fact the perception was that the only way one could get commissioned into Armoured Corps was either by being in the super block, having ‘Parental Claim’ (GCs whose fathers had served in a particular arm / regiment had a lien on getting commissioned into it), or having some very strong strings to pull. Infantry, on the other hand, was not very popular as a choice, and people opting for other arms landing up in Infantry used to call themselves ‘casualties’. The reasons for this can be debated at length and probably acrimoniously, but that is not the point at issue. The point is that a disproportionately large number of young officers getting commissioned into Armoured Corps were from the higher end of the merit in their course. Although performance in the Academies and passing out merit cannot be taken as an unfailing yardstick for subsequent performance, law of averages would dictate that a large number of these high achievers would continue to excel throughout their service and therefore have an edge when the batch was considered for promotion. Thus the impact of ‘quality of initial intake’.
Better professional exposure relates to the role of armour in operations. Normally, a squadron of armour supports the operations of an infantry brigade, and a regiment that of a division. The ‘area of influence’ and ‘area of interest’ of an armour commander is therefore vast as compared to his counterpart in Infantry. Even during peacetime training events and exercises, a squadron commander is therefore an inherent part of the planning process at the Brigade HQs, and his CO is an advisor to the GOC. Such exposures give them a degree of self assurance, insight and opportunities for learning that are not available to their counterparts in the Infantry. For instance, when the squadron commander attends his CO’s orders, he gets a fair insight into the way the GOC intends to fight the divisional battle.
Environment in majority of the Armoured Regiments is conducive to further enhancing such professional growth and development. Young officers are encouraged to speak their minds and also be unhesitant about asking questions on professional matters, not only within the unit, but also during formation training events. Rarely is their professional initiative or curiosity curbed. The outcome of these opportunities becomes apparent at courses of instruction where such an exposure gives them an edge over their counterparts. Unfortunately, this is often ill conceived as flamboyance or arrogance, leading to greater resentment against them.
So, while inflated ACRs and sheltered service under parochial senior officers of the same arm can be the cause of the rise of some officers (as in any other arm or service), it would be a gross oversimplification to ignore the abovementioned factors as amongst the causes for disproportionate number of Armoured Corps officers qualifying for promotions when general cadre vacancies formed a common pool.
Coming back to the origins of the ‘pro rata’ policy. Gen VP Malik was the first Infantry chief to take over after the highly resented period described above, and it was during this tenure that the policy of reserving promotional vacancies in the general cadre based on the strength of an arm was formulated. Thus began the process of ‘Mandalisation’ of the army, where promotions to higher ranks are now on the basis of quota for arms rather than on the comparative merit within a batch. Thus, if there are 12 vacancies for Armoured Corps and 100 vacancies for Infantry in a batch of 500 Lt Cols being considered for promotion, an Armoured Corps officer who may be 13th in Armoured Corps and 20th in the overall merit amongst those 500 will not be promoted, while an Infantry officer who is 130th may be.
Another reason cited for this preferential treatment is the Infantry’s need to be compensated for greater hardships such as deployment in Counter Insurgency. Not only is this logic warped, in today’s scenario when officers of all arms get exposure to such environments through RR and other tenures, it is no longer valid. Rewards for service adverse conditions also come through higher allowances, gallantry awards, and additional weightage for field / operational service in promotion boards and selection for foreign assignments. In the example cited earlier, it is feasible that the Armoured Corps officer 13th in merit may have had two field tenures and the Infantry officer at 130 may not have had any at all – there is no mechanism to avoid such lacunae. Reserving promotional vacancies for an arm on this basis is therefore not warranted, particularly when merit is the casualty.
The impact of this policy has been visible on the morale of officers of Armoured Corps and Mechanised Infantry. A clear indicator of this is the Staff College results in the past few years, which has seen a declining number of officers from these corps qualifying. The reason is the general belief in the futility of aspiring for the professional course in the ‘pro rata’ regime. It must be emphasised that no matter what the size or role of any arm or service, each has a vital role in the ultimate operational effectiveness of the Army, and appeasing one at the extreme cost of another is far from prudent.
It is unfortunate that decisions at the apex levels in the Army have been made based on loyalties other than to the organisation as an entity. Officers beyond the rank of Brigadier are supposed to be above the constraints of arms or regiments, and that is the reason traditionally they no longer wear the shoulder insignia of their regiment / corps. They are also supposed suffix ‘IA’ (Indian Army) to their names, as opposed to the regiment / corps suffixed by officers below that rank. This practice seems to have been lost, not only in letter, but also in spirit. Things had reached such a head recently that even the press commented on the proclivity of senior officers to bat for their own arms.
One hopes that when the new chief sets about improving the internal health of the Army, he would be able to rise above narrower affiliations and be able to act in the overall interests of the organisation.