Amidst speculation and heated debates about the delay in appointment of the next army chief, rumours about the two senior army commanders likely to be superceded are doing rounds. One argument being forwarded is – “shouldn’t merit rather than seniority be the criterion?” As arguments go, its a tempting one, one which is difficult to disagree with. But it’s not without its pitfalls.
For the sake of argument, let’s assume that there is significant difference between Army Commanders in terms of their merit or suitability for the job. What would be the parameters on which such differences could be measured? How would the performance of a Northern Army Commander dealing with Counter Insurgency operations be compared with that of, say the Western Army Commander who’s peacetime deliverables would be substantially different? Or with the Vice Chief, who may have nothing to show but procurement projects which are delayed for no fault of his?
Since there is no objective mechanism to ascertain any differences in merit, even if they do exist, there is bound to be subjectivity in making such a choice. Even this may work without causing much of an upheaval as long as there is a strong government in place. But imagine this scenario sometime in the future.
There’s a weak coalition government in place at the centre. There are three or four regional satraps jointly keeping the government afloat, each with just enough MPs to bring the government down if it comes to a crunch. And you have seven Army Commanders, each of whom is now in the running for chief based on precedence set by selecting a chief ‘on merit’ rather than on seniority as used to happen earlier. Imagine if each of them is lobbying with one or more of the regional satraps to help them. You will have a situation where politicians are rooting for their ‘candidate’ to be the next chief. Regional, cast and religious affiliations would come into play. We recently saw the CM of a state creating a huge controversy over a routine army exercise. In future such controversies could become a way of ‘eliminating’ a candidate in the race for chief. Matter would be further complicated by the central government rooting for its own candidate, advised by the incumbent chief, probably based on Regimental or arm affiliations. Further unfolding and ramifications of such a scenario are actually too disturbing to imagine.
For the past seven decades, the Armed Forces have carried out their role professionally, having earned universal trust and respect in the country. They have remained steadfastly apolitical, and though appointment of the chiefs have been a political decision, there has been no politics involved in the decision itself. This is because the principle of senior most army commander becoming the chief has been strictly followed, leaving the government of the day very little room for playing favourites.
When the system has worked well for the past seven decades, there shouldn’t be any reason to tamper with it unnecessarily. Even if well intentioned, a move which is presently unnecessary and potential damaging in the long run, must be avoided at all costs. So, Si fractum non sit, noli id reficere or as the Americans, now our ‘major defence partners’ say, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”