By Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 19th Dec 16
An inevitable controversy has erupted followed the government’s announcement of Lieutenant General (Lt Gen) Bipin Rawat as the general who will succeed General Dalbir Singh Suhag on December 31 in the post of “chief of army staff” (COAS), or army chief.
Opposition parties have accused the government of politicising the appointment by abandoning the traditional criterion of seniority. More worryingly, there is sharp resentment within sections of the army on the side-lining of two high-calibre officers who Rawat will supersede --- Lt Gen Praveen Bakshi, currently commanding the eastern army in Kolkata, senior-most after Suhag; and Lt Gen PM Hariz, also senior to Rawat, who commands the southern army from his headquarters in Pune.
Officers from the infantry are defending the supersession of Bakshi and Hariz, the former from the armoured corps, and the latter from the mechanised infantry. Over the last two decades, six out of eight army chiefs have been from the infantry and the other two from the artillery. The appointment of either Bakshi or Hariz would interrupt the infantry’s prolonged domination of the army command --- which comes with the right to make appointments and shape promotion policy.
The elevation of Rawat, like Suhag an infantryman from the Gurkha Rifles, preserves this arrangement.
However, even infantry officers are alarmed at how Suhag has packed army headquarters with his fellow Gurkha regiment officers. Besides Rawat himself, Gurkha officers occupy the key posts of Director General of Military Operations (Lt Gen AK Bhatt); Director General of Military Intelligence (Lt Gen SK Patyal); Director General of Military Training (Lt Gen AL Chavan); Adjutant General (Lt Gen Rakesh Sharma); and Director General Staff Duties (Lt Gen Vijay Singh), amongst many others.
Rawat’s supersession of Bakshi and Hariz indicates how difficult it has become for a non-infantry general to become chief, even when he has the seniority and merits. The army’s command hierarchy has demonstrated its ability to bring the government around to their viewpoint.
The government, however, justifies Rawat’s selection as based on merit. In leaks to chosen journalists on WhatsApp (which this correspondent has reviewed) a defence ministry spokesperson claimed Rawat’s rare combination of skill and experience makes him “the best suited among the Lt. Generals, to deal with the emerging challenges… (sic).”
Separately, the MoD spokesperson has told journalists over the phone that Bakshi, a tank man who has spent many years in the deserts of Rajasthan and in Punjab, was ill-equipped to handle the internal security challenges of J&K and the northeast. Bakshi’s tenures as chief-of-staff in northern command and as the eastern army command apparently count for nothing.
Nor apparently does the fact that war with Pakistan would centre on swift tank offensives under the “Cold Start” doctrine. “The army believes that peacetime operations are more important than preparing for a real war”, says a senior serving general.
Without question, the government has the right to appoint an army chief of its choice. In an army where seniority has often elevated the wrong general to the top job, a move to meritocratic selection must be unambiguously welcomed.
“Though it is good to have a meritocracy, there must be clear criteria for determining merit. Otherwise, generals will start approaching politicians who can promote them to the top, and that will end the apolitical character of the army”, warns Lt Gen HS Panag, a former army commander.
While Bakshi, Hariz and Rawat are all capable of leading the army successfully, there are no objective criteria to suggest that Rawat is any more meritorious than the officers he superseded. Bakshi, particularly, has distinguished himself from his cadet days, performing outstandingly over decades. He is enormously respected by subordinates and peers for his integrity and blunt forthrightness, both valuable military qualities.
“When I heard about Bipin Rawat’s appointment as the next chief, I immediately assumed that Praveen Bakshi – who I know enjoys an excellent reputation --- was being named the first tri-service chief. That might still happen, but the government should have first announce Bakshi’s elevation,” says Lt Gen Rostum Nanavatty, a revered former army commander who happens to be from the Gurkha Rifles.
That an unusual succession might be coming became evident in September, when the chief cut short Rawat’s tenure at the head of southern command, and appointed him vice-chief --- a placement usually given to chiefs-in-waiting to acquaint them with army headquarters (AHQ) functioning before they take over the army.
Then came the inexplicable delay in announcing Suhag’s successor, which is traditionally done two-three months before the outgoing chief retires. Eventually, the announcement came just two weeks before Suhag was due to retire.
Since independence, successive Indian governments have appointed army chiefs based on the principle of seniority. The one exception was the appointment of Gen Arun Vaidya as army chief in 1983, superseding Lt Gen SK Sinha, who the Indira Gandhi government considered dangerously political.
Earlier, in 1975, when Indira Gandhi had reservations over appointing the strong willed and forthright Lt Gen Prem Bhagat as army chief, for which he would have been in line when Gen GG Bewoor retired, the government granted Bewoor an extension to continue until Bhagat retired. As a result of this subterfuge, Bhagat never had to be superseded.