A DATE TO REMEMBER - The succession controversy has not been good for the army

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By Brijesh D. Jayal The author is a retired air marshal of the Indian Air Force
  • Published 6.10.11

Even as the nation was watching the jan lok pal agitation unfold with its impact on various institutions of our democracy, it is ironic that another salvo should have come our way from the one institution that was considered far removed from the din and debate of a vibrant democracy, namely the armed forces.

In an unprecedented move and a first in the annals of the history of the republic’s armed forces, the chief of army staff filed a statutory complaint to the defence minister seeking a review of the latter’s rejection of his earlier appeal requesting that his year of birth be corrected to 1951 as against 1950. This was to determine his date of retirement. In yet another dubious first, a team of members of parliament met the prime minister with a memorandum seeking sympathetic reconsideration in favour of the COAS. What motivated this move — when clearly there were two sides to the issue — raises worrying questions. Fortuitously, the prime minister sidestepped the trap.

Strange as it may seem, there appear similarities between the jan lok pal agitation and the present stand-off between the ministry of defence and a service chief. The former case derived its strength from an individual perceived to be the upholder and practitioner of high moral values willing to sacrifice his life for a just cause. The latter involves the head of an institution that lives by the credo of ‘selfless service’ in which sacrificing one’s life is expected in the line of duty. The former brought into debate the finer points of the relationship among the different constitutional pillars of our democracy, whilst the latter highlighted the fraying relationship among institutions of governance brought about by archaic divisions amongst them. There is, however, a major difference as well. Whilst the former, if followed in its right spirit, could rejuvenate the institutions of democracy and governance, the latter, by its very existence, is undermining national security.

It is beyond the pale of this piece to judge the merits or otherwise of the issue of the year of birth of the army chief or indeed the legal rights of those donning military uniform as conferred by the laws of the land and circumscribed by the respective service acts. What must concern every citizen, however, is the impact of this needless controversy on the larger security canvas of the country. Just as the jan lok pal agitation generated a healthy debate on some constitutional issues, with Parliament rising to the occasion, there are lessons that must flow from this avoidable public spat towards strengthening institutions of governance to which the government must also rise.

It needs recalling that within army headquarters the adjutant general’s branch is the record keeper of salaries and pensions whilst the military secretary’s branch is responsible for postings and promotions. The obvious first question is, why have the AG’s branch and the MS’s branch not been able to reconcile the discrepancy between their respective records, especially since the issue had been raised by the ministry of defence when the general officer was considered successively for elevation to corps commander, army commander and chief? If two crucial branches within army headquarters under direct control of the chief and dealing with the valuable human resource of officers cannot work in harmony, then all is not well with the institution of the Indian army.

In more sombre times, this internal institutional weakness would have called for immediate steps and remedies, with some heads rolling. It is a sign of the times that instead, the priority has shifted to a technical issue of age with its personal fallout on the remaining length of the present chief’s tenure. It is in the interests of the army to ensure that once the dust settles every effort is made to get to the bottom of this to assure the nation that no extraneous forces are at play and that the rot does not run deep.

The second question relates to the ministry of defence and its own lack of accountability. It is reported that when being considered for appointment as commander Eastern Command the general officer had undertaken to act in the larger organizational interest, which was interpreted by the ministry of defence as acceptance of 1950 as the year of birth. Later reports indicated that the officer had accepted that this year would remain. How is it that the ministry of defence, which otherwise is known for its meticulous paperwork and record-keeping, failed to set the record straight at that time itself and failed yet again when he was subsequently appointed chief? One does recall that at that time, the Sukna scam was drawing a lot of adverse publicity with many senior army officers being drawn in, the erstwhile head of the MS’s branch being one of them. One wonders if the seeds of this controversy were sown during that unfortunate period. The ministry of defence also owes the nation an explanation.

It can hardly be a coincidence that just about the time the ministry had finally ruled against the chief’s request for change of age, the erstwhile chairman, chiefs of staff committee, had, on behalf of the three service chiefs, taken the unusual step of writing to the prime minister complaining about the lack of integration between the ministry of defence and the three service headquarters that was contributing to prolonged delays in procurement and hampering other higher management activities. The inescapable conclusion is that relations between the ministry and the services have now reached an undesirable low and continuing procrastination to integrate the service headquarters with the ministry of defence — a long pending recommendation dating back to the Kargil review committee — is harming national security.

Further, the import of this controversy is not so much whether the present incumbent serves for some more months or not, it lies in its impact on the entire succession race for the next COAS, which brings into focus the third issue. Does the genesis of this controversy lie in a subtle succession battle being waged by vested interests? Reports that the issue came to light when a right to information application sought the dates of birth of the five seniormost generals, and a subsequent attempt to influence matters made by some MPs do give this idea some credence.

Such subtle or even bolder succession battles are not new. Many a veteran has been witness to these, but loyalty to the larger cause confines such discussion to club rooms. Few will remember when a senior air officer was compelled to resign for lobbying with politicians on a parochial basis. Indeed with a soft policy of blindly following seniority rather than merit amongst the top few contenders, this is an inevitable consequence. Worse still, there are many who, by virtue of their dates of birth, are already eyeing top slots many years in advance and choosing to swim with the tide for fear of rocking the boat. Not the most ideal of environments to groom selfless and professional commanders of the future.

We can no longer afford the luxury of opting for seniority over merit in the selection of senior command posts. The remedy is to assign merit for the job far greater priority than a place in the queue amongst the top five to 10 contenders. As challenges to national security take on wider dimensions and as technology, the nature of threats and expanding international military cooperation demand greater levels of professionalism and leadership qualities, the nation deserves the right to choose the most meritorious for military leadership roles.

Which brings one to the last but perhaps the most potent of issues, that of military leadership. In a profession where the led are expected to follow orders of their leaders even at the cost of their lives, military leaders are far removed from an ethos of legalese and personal rights. Military leadership hence carries a moral burden weightier than any other — that of the professional military ethic of selfless service defined as putting the needs and interests of the nation, the military and one’s subordinates far above one’s own. By this yardstick alone, the present controversy has struck a mortal blow to the ethos of the armed forces of the republic, and conjures up a nightmarish vision of them being reduced to a mercenary force. That in the bargain we are also beginning to look like a banana republic offers little solace.