The media war centering around former COAS Gen VK Singh the last few months has, amongst many other effects, thrown around a number of ‘Red Herrings’. The aspects of honour and morale have been talked about in earlier posts. The so called ‘Line of Succession’ is another such fish. In case you have not been following the saga, it refers to the present system where the senior-most serving Army Commander at the time of retirement of the COAS succeeds him. A corollary to this is that promotion to Army Commander depends on seniority of the Lt Gens who have the requisite amount of residual service on occurrence of the vacancy. This system has been generally adhered to by successive governments since independence, with two notable exceptions where the senior-most serving Army Commander was passed over for promotion and appointment as COAS.
One spin off of this system is that it is a matter of knowing the dates of birth (official ones) of senior Generals, and applying simple arithmetic, to deduce who the next two (or at times, even three) Army Chiefs will be. This is, of course, discounting any force majeure, or any intervening misdemeanors by the persons concerned. Now, to liken this system to that of the line of succession as in a monarchy (or a family owned business) is actually clever ‘perception management’.
Several arguments have been forwarded against this system, including that of playing favourites. The impression being conveyed is that in such a system, merit is given the short shrift. That the person being promoted may not be the most deserving or competent amongst those available. That it should be replaced by a merit based system, wherein the most ‘capable’ or ‘meritorious’ Army Commander is selected as the COAS. It does sound like a logical way forward – after all, the nation’s army must be led by the best available, not necessarily the senior-most. But on closer examination, the flaws of the argument become apparent.
First, the rationale of following the ‘seniority’ principle – which is quite simple. It rests on the premise that an officer capable of being an Army Commander is certainly capable of becoming the Chief. One cannot find fault with that argument, unless one now wants to question the efficacy of selection process for Lt Gens itself. Thus, if you have all the Army Commanders who are well qualified and capable of becoming the COAS, the obvious deciding factor would be the seniority.
Some ‘anti-successionists’ may argue that while all Army Commanders may be competent, there would be shades of difference – meaning that it is not necessary that the senior most may be the most competent and thus the most deserving to be the Chief. The counter argument to that is – what would be the measure of such differential in competence, and who would be the arbitrator? Answer to the second would be relatively easy – the government, or a suitable panel appointed by it – an appointment committee for example. The first would pose more problems than it would probably solve.
Given the nature of their duties and job description, the measure of competence would have to be mainly subjective. It would be very difficult to come out with clear cut deliverables on a level playing field, against which different Army Commanders could be fairly measured to ascertain their relative competence. And in a subjective system, the prejudices and leanings of the decision makers would play a big role.
Ask any middle rung officer for a frank opinion on factors that are adversely impacting the internal health of the Army today. One of the key factors that the majority, if not all of them will talk about, is the increasingly unhealthy competition amongst peers within a formation. Officers to be rated by a common boss realize that like in war, there are no ‘runners up’ in ACRs. That coveted 9 point ACR would generally be awarded to only the winner. And often, that would make the difference between hit and miss for nomination for professional courses and promotion. Unsavory episodes such as the infamous ‘Ketchup Colonel’ are nothing but manifestations of this compulsion to outshine peers in order to move up.
Senior ranks are, by and large, not afflicted by this syndrome. And we have the so called ‘line of succession’ system to thank for that. It ensures that General officers can go about doing their job without really having to worry about competitiveness to get to the next level. The only catch with this system is that it calls for a robust system of selection up to the rank of Lt Gen, to ensure that the gene pool available for further promotion is sound.
On the other hand, if the system is tinkered with, and selection instead of seniority is used to pick up the Chief from amongst the Army Commanders, it would result in a possible free for all. There is high likelihood that the aspirants would try to curry favours with the decision makers – babus and politicians – to get ahead in a game that would clearly not have any definable verifiable parameters. Just imagine what that would do to the apolitical (almost, one is forced to say, after recent events) nature of the Army.
By propagating using ‘merit’ instead of seniority, the proponents – with extremely noble intent no doubt – are actually opening gates for greater political interference, patronage and nepotism into a system that has by and far stood the test of time and worked well. Like our American friends would say – “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”