India: Stories of Supersession in the Armed Forces

It is a great pity that, as in the appointment of the last three Army chiefs, Gen Rawat’s elevation has got mired in needless controversy over the supersession of two Armoured Corps Army Commanders

by Ashok K Mehta

( January 4, 2017, New Delhi, Sri Lanka Guardian) Last Saturday, Gen Bipin Rawat became the 27th Army chief (COAS is a misnomer) superseding two Generals, both of whom have accepted to serve under him. This is a first, when overlooked officers have pledged to work under their junior and set a healthy precedent of honouring the Government’s prerogative to select its chief on principle of primus inter pares. Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar, in an interview to NewsX, confirmed that seniority alone was not the determinant for selecting Service chiefs.

Room 194 E in South Block is the Chief’s Lounge for visitors to meet the COAS. In it are pictures of all those, from Gen KM Cariappa to Gen Dalbir Suhag, who occupied the exalted office. Of the 27 chiefs so far, 16 are from the Infantry, six from Armoured Corps and five from Artillery. The Armoured Corps, compared to its size, has bagged a disproportionate share of the ultimate appointment, which reflects that seniority, competence and suitability have influenced the choice. Amongst the Infantry, Gorkhas, with 41 battalions, is the largest group of Regiments and has contributed four chiefs:  two, back to back, now and in the mid-1970s.

It is a great pity that, as in the appointment of the last three Army chiefs, Gen Rawat’s elevation has got mired in needless controversy over the supersession of two Armoured Corps Army Commanders. Not a word though, was uttered when Admiral Robin Dhowan superseded Vice Admiral Shekhar Sinha recently. The maximum criticism has come from Armoured Corps officers expressing fear that breaching the seniority convention will lead to politicisation. The ruling BJP-led Government, one will recall, objected to the UPA naming the Army chief (Gen Suhag), before the election results in 2014. In its previousavatar in 2000, it had dismissed the Naval chief, Admiral Vishnu Bhagwat, for defying the Government’s appointment of a three star Admiral over his choice.  No other Service chief has ever been dismissed, though Gen VK Singh came pretty close to that.

In most democracies the trade-off for civilian political control over the military is autonomy for the latter in management of its internal affairs. When this was violated in the late 1950s by Defence Minister Krishna Menon by interfering in promotions and postings, Army Chief Gen KS Thimayya (Timmy) resigned, though soon he was persuaded by Prime Minister Nehru to retract his decision. Nehru and Timmy were good friends. Menon continued his wayward ways by appointing sycophants like Lt Gen Biji Kaul for plum appointments and hounded independent professionals like Maj Gen Sam Manekshaw against whom he ordered an inquiry that failed to book him. Menon, in cahoots with Nehru, provided such injurious political guidance to the Army high command — which sadly did not demur — leading it to the Himalayan blunder of 1962. The only other time there was palpable political interference was in the short-lived term of Defence Minister Mulayam Singh Yadav.

Supersessions in higher ranks are not uncommon when the political executive exercises the constitutional choice to appoint the Service chief. Nehru was advised by Generals Rajendrasinhji and Nathu Singh not to overlook Gen Cariappa who was senior to them, when he was thinking of appointing  one of them as the first Indian Army chief. Timmy bypassed two of his seniors, Gen Sant Singh and  Kulwant Singh without so much as a ripple. Gen Gopal Bewoor was to be succeeded by a fellow Rimcollian, Gen Prem Bhagat, the first Indian officer to win a Victoria Cross. In her book, Victoria Cross: A Love Story, Bhagat’s daughter, Ashali Verma, writes that Bhagat was told by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi that he would succeed Gen Bewoor. She had second thoughts and chose the Kashmiri General, Tapi Raina, for the mantle. This was engineered by giving Gen Bewoor a short extension. In those days, no one asked — and no reason was given — for extension or supersession.

It was Lt Gen SK Sinha’s supersession by Lt Gen Arun Vaidya from Armoured Corps on grounds of superior operational experience that caused tumult. Gen Sinha was the tallest among a sparse crop of cerebral officers and had served in Army Headquarters in every rank, from Captain to Lt Gen. He could outwit the brightest bureaucrats in the Defence Ministry and was feared by them. What he missed as the COAS was compensated by one ambassadorial and two gubernatorial posts. Sadly, Gen Vaidya in whose term as chief, Operation Blue Star was launched (earlier Lt Sinha as Western Army Commander had refused to mount the operation), was gunned down by Khalistani terrorists in his fading days at Pune. The British routinely supersede in the selection of Service chiefs and CDS, discarding the seniority principle.

It was patently wrong and unnecessary on the part of the Government to provide background information on the reasons why Gen Rawat scored over others due to his extensive  counterinsurgency and Line of Control experience. Counter-insurgency is the Army’s secondary task in aid to civil authority. The primary role of the Army is to deter and fight a war, including defence against external aggression. One could argue that Pakistan’s proxy war in J&K is part of that bigger design, but it could not be the key determinant for merit trumping seniority. If seniority alone was the clinching factor, why would the Ministry forward to the Appointments Committee of the Cabinet, eight dossiers of seven Army Commanders including  commander ARTRAC and Vice Chief of Army Staff? Only the senior most, Lt Gen Praveen Bakshi’s dossier ought to have been sent.

The perception that Armoured Corps has been short changed by Infantry and Artillery in Higher Command, must be addressed by the Army before the Defence Ministry intervenes after the orders of the Supreme Court. Until the promotions system is institutionalised, every chief, regardless of arm, will intrinsically favour his own arm and Regiment due to the deeply ingrained and effective regimental system. The Ministry is adept at nitpicking and on the lookout for opportunities in getting intrusive. It directed that the Special Selection Board — Maj Gen to Lt Gen — not be held during last month’s Army Commanders’ conference. Not until Gen Suhag met Defence Minister Parrikar did the Defence Ministry relent. It was finally held on  December 17.

By continuing in service, Lt Gen Praveen Bakshi may be chasing the mirage of CDS — he is to retire in July 2017. Parrikar told NewsX in his whimsical style that CDS would be appointed in 2017. In mid-2015, he had put ‘two months’ for its realisation. Still, good luck to Lt Gen Bakshi and happy hunting, Gen Rawat !

(The writer is a retired Major General of the Indian Army and strategic affairs expert) 



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