Line of succession – myth vs reality


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.”

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10 thoughts on “Line of succession – myth vs reality

  1. You have analysed this issue very well from both sides. I agree that whilst the existing ” seniority” system is not perfect , the alternative of a “merit” based promotion of Army commanders to COAS is fraught with with more dangers than benefits – the most frightening being a scenario where a GOC-in-C’s KRA becomes currying favour with the political establishment rather than concentrating on managing his Command.

  2. Excellent post, Aggie. Incisive and unbiased. A good argument for continuing the present ‘system’. Well Done.

  3. Dear Aggi Sir
    Things are not as simple as you have made them to be. Line of succession is not from amongst Army Cdrs but identifying your own people right from GOC/ Bde cdr level and then ensuring their rise to highest level even if it means ruthlessly cutting out those who stand in the way You should know it better……

  4. Well written Rohit. I have just one suggestion – articles like these need far greater circulation. Our beloved countrymen who exhibit some amazing Ostrich like tendencies need to know. It is a fairly simple permutation. More exposure to this line of thinking is needed, need I say desperately. Impt considering that most of our countrymen, consider being able to sign ones name as education.

  5. What is broke is not at the top but at the bottom. Hence the correction has to come in first at the initial 25 years of an officers career.
    Why should the passing out merit of IMA/OTA be frozen for determining inter-se seniority in a course? There could be a continuous and dynamic ranking system, at least within a course/batch, as in case of sports.As a career soldier, one would know better where one stands and take life’s decisions accordingly. This would also alter the notion of immutable ‘seniority’.
    If the principle of so called seniority is not sacrosanct for the position of a democratically elected PM/President in a country,shouldn’t it be re-examined in the context of the second largest professional Army of the world?

  6. @Speedbird, @RJ, @SG – thanks for the good words.

    @Realthing – you probably missed this line – “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.” Obviously, the system is not as robust as desired. Having said that, there’s another angle. Our organization being pyramidal of extreme steepness, the ‘wastage rate’ at each level is very high. NOT ONE person who is superseded (self included – like you said, I ought to know better) believes that he is better than at least a few who did make it. Result is a search for Phantom causes for ‘not making it despite deserving to’.

    So, while regimental (see Pull of the Lanyard ), old boys, and maybe to some extent even communal affiliations do play some role in queering the pitch, many of the cited instances that do rounds may also be mere perceptions of minds unwilling to accept their rejection if the system was fairer.

    Would love to hear further views on this.

  7. @Amitabh – thanks. Guess only way of increasing circulation is if friends like you share it with others.

  8. @Vikas – please see my reply to @Realthing above. I agree with you. The basic problem with our appraisal system – whether at the bottom or at the top – is the lack of clear cut deliverables against which comparison between peers being rated / graded can be made objectively. Subjective reporting is highly ineffective and prone to personal biases. I would say that by comparison at least the Academy merit is more unbiased and measured against partially tangible parameters. I am not saying that those parameters remain valid as one grows in service, so yes, there ought to be a re-adjustment of merit. But to my mind that automatically takes place through filters like Staff College and other career courses. So at the end of all these, people between whom it is a matter of difference of IC numbers would have cleared the same filters and once again it would be a matter of choosing primus inter pares.
    But I do agree with you that the appraisal system needs a major overhaul – maybe 360 degrees appraisal is a way forward. But that would require a complete change of mindset.

  9. The criteria for selection for career courses and selections is constantly changing and made applicable with rerospective effect.Only a true soothsayer can anticipate what would be the selection criteria when he comes up for promotion. No wonder our selection system reminds us of a book titled “A Random Walk Across Wall Street”.
    How would Baichung feel if the goalpost ran away when he is kicking the winning goal?

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