A news report in ToI’s August 9 edition, headlined ‘For top military posts, MoD weighs merit over seniority’, may possibly have caused concern to many, and has compelled this veteran to pen his views on the topic.
In a bleak public administration scenario, the sole organisation that has not only functioned effectively but has risen to every occasion is the Indian military. Today, as he stands as a bulwark against Chinese soldiers in the Himalayas, the Indian soldier has remained the standard-bearer of constitutional values, discipline, patriotism, secularism and ethical conduct.
Integrity and ethical conduct are crucial. Success in war demands that soldiers have complete trust in each other. As we saw in Galwan last year, the Indian officer in junior ranks has invariably led from the front, taking very high casualties in battle, earning not just worldwide admiration, but the faith and confidence of his men.
However, as he climbs the slippery promotion-ladder to higher ranks, there are many ethical pitfalls that may trip up an idealistic young officer; most of them rooted in the very natural human trait of ‘ambition’. Thus, it is vital for services to ensure that the system of promotions and advancement is as just, fair and transparent as possible, so that the rank and file remain confident that the leaders they unquestioningly follow deserve the position they have attained.
The military has a very fair methodology for selection of officers for promotion from the rank of Colonel to General (and equivalents in other services). The very fact that between 60-70% officers fall by the wayside, at each stage of promotion, speaks of the fierce competition and stringent selection criteria.
Promotion boards, convened periodically for placing officers on a ‘select list’ for promotion to ranks of Colonel and above, examine only annual confidential reports rendered periodically on candidates. ACRs contain numerical gradings for a number of attributes, as well as a ‘pen picture’ that describes the individual’s qualities for the board and substantiates the grading. ‘Merit’, therefore, remains the sole criterion for the selection process by which a batch of 100 officers may be reduced to 10-12 by the time they reach 3-star rank.
An issue of unhappiness arises from the fact that the service chiefs are entitled to have the last say as far as ACRs of 2- and 3-star rank officers are concerned. This is quite appropriate, but like other reporting officers, chiefs, too, must provide full justification, via written remarks, for changing earlier gradings. Similarly, there may be many other areas of dissatisfaction and the need for reform certainly exists. This would also be a timely juncture to bring uniformity in personnel policies of the three services.
Therefore, on the ‘merit versus seniority’ debate for selection of new Commanders-in-Chief, there is need to tread with caution because any hasty step can inflict deep-rooted damage.
The current system of promotion to higher military ranks is based on the principle of seniority-cum-merit. As pointed out above, it consists of repeated winnowing of officers on the basis of merit alone. Therefore, the handful who ‘run the gauntlet’ and survive to reach top echelons are of uniformly high calibre. Choosing the senior-most, by date of promotion to his present rank (not by date of birth or date of commission), has, therefore, proved a ‘safe bet’ for decades.
On the other hand, by using some other definition of ‘merit’, the government could free itself from the constraint of ‘seniority’ but that would open the floodgates of unhealthy speculation. It is possible that by employing the ‘deep selection’ methodology and overlooking seniority, the MoD may unearth some outstanding officers.
But this must be weighed against two drawbacks: (a) the selectee would consider himself beholden to the politico-bureaucratic establishment, undermining his own credibility within the service; and (b) high-level military decisions may be skewed to please politicians.
Political polarisation, if allowed to take place in the military, would create deep fissures within the officer corps – eventually infecting the rank and file. Finally, it merits reiteration that the public respects the military for its apolitical and non-partisan conduct. But if the citizens perceive it as just another interest-group seeking to promote itself, that respect will soon vanish.
Views expressed above are the author’s own.