An ongoing spat between the MoD and Army HQ is keeping key positions empty. A codified army promotion policy will put an end to such face-offs
by Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 5th Apr 11
South Block is being roiled by a face-off between military and the ministry of defence (MoD), which co-exist at the best of times in mutual loathing. Since September, the MoD has blocked the routine promotion of army officers to the senior-most levels of command. Today, the commanders of several army divisions and corps – combat formations that are headed by major generals and lieutenant generals, respectively – are serving extended tenures since nobody is being promoted to relieve them. The Indian Army’s elite 1 Corps, which strikes deep into enemy territory in war, currently has no commander. Two major general posts in the crucial Military Operations Directorate and one in Military Intelligence Directorate are lying vacant.
Such a situation is unthinkable in India’s security environment, where a combat-ready military is regarded as the deterrent that holds back more Mumbai-style terrorist attacks. Even before terrorism became a factor in our security calculus, the military valued smooth succession at higher levels of command. When former army chief and India’s military legend General S H F J Manekshaw found the MoD dilly-dallying on the appointment of one of his army commanders, he unilaterally issued an order posting a suitable general and asked the MoD to regularise it in due course.
But that was a different era and Manekshaw was Manekshaw. Since then the MoD has asserted its supremacy, especially in the 1998 sacking of navy chief Admiral Vishnu Bhagwat for refusing to implement the government’s appointment of Vice Admiral Harinder Singh as deputy chief of naval staff.
The cause of the ongoing confrontation is as follows: three years ago the army chief at the time, General Deepak Kapoor, implemented new criteria for promotion, in which subjectivity was minimised in assessing an officer’s suitability for higher rank. The new “quantification system” sought to translate into a set of numbers every measure of officers’ performance — in day-to-day functioning; on courses of instruction; special appointments; honours and awards and so on. This was to eliminate subjective judgement, which could scuttle a deserving candidate or elevate someone relatively less capable. This system was to be evaluated for three years and then tweaked if required.
When General V K Singh, the current army chief, took over from General Kapoor, feedback gleaned from army officers suggested changes in the quantification model. The new chief also decided to roll back another Kapoor-era policy to divide generals into two streams: those cleared for commanding combat formations and others who were cleared only to fill staff posts in headquarters. The army headquarters sought permission from the ministry, but the bureaucrats wondered why each new army chief had to tinker with promotion policies. For months, the matter hung in limbo.
Eventually, in January, the army promulgated the new quantification model and conducted promotion boards to the ranks of major general and lieutenant general, clearing all successful candidates for command and staff. Predictably, the MoD has refused to clear the board results. The army chief has met the defence minister, but there is no resolution. Mr Antony appears to agree with his bureaucrats who point out: every new army chief sets about reversing his predecessor’s policies.
Watchers of the Indian military believe that the absence of a formal promotion policy allows the flourishing of patrimonial interest, where policy changes are manipulated to benefit supporters and service constituencies. Unlike the civil services, where an iron-clad promotion policy has long existed, the military’s rulebook takes the form of policy letters, many of which are superseded as each new chief implements his ideas. This theoretically allows for responsive and adaptive promotion policies, but it also creates suspicion about the motives behind policy changes.
Noting that frequent policy changes have sharply increased the number of generals who approach the courts, the army’s former Judge Advocate General, Major General Nilendra Kumar, believes that, “When policy is changed almost every alternate year it indicates lack of consistency and suggests efforts to favour or bail out certain people. This leads to uncertainty and anxiety within the military.”
It also leads to poor policy, like the “pro-rata” system that the army implemented a decade ago. This involves allocating vacancies to each arm, at the rank of brigadier, in proportion to the number of officers in the arm. If the infantry comprised 55 per cent of all officers, they would get 55 per cent of all brigadier vacancies. Slammed by critics as the “Mandalisation of the army”, this divisive policy, backed by heavily populated arms like the infantry and the artillery, threw out the meritocracy that had governed higher rank in modern armies ever since the famous Prussian general staff had demonstrated its advantages.
Instead of learning from history, the army extended “pro-rata” to selecting major generals and was all set to extend this to the lieutenant general rank as well. Fortunately, when the proposal came up for discussion at the Army Commanders’ Conference in 2008, the famously outspoken Lieutenant General H S Panag acidly observed that the logical next step would be to select the army chief, not on merit or seniority, but turn by turn from each arm. That effectively quashed the proposal.
It is time to end the uncertainty caused by this endless tweaking of promotion policy. High-grade officers are retiring before their time, while the MoD refuses to release their promotion board results. The MoD must clear the army’s current proposals and ensure that all three services codify promotion policy in a simple rulebook.