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Age is not just a number

 

The government's mishandling of the army chief's birth issue has thrown the spotlight on malaises effecting promotions in the military
MAYANK SINGH | Issue Dated: February 5, 2012, New Delhi
Tags : army chief age row |
 

 With the Union government deciding to snub Chief of Army Staff (COAS) Gen.VK Singh on the issue of his birth certificate, the question doing the rounds is this: what impact is it likely to have on the morale of a completely apolitical defence force as well as its ambitious modernisation programme?

Analysts say the controversy, which should have been, at best, nipped in the bud or worst, handled out of public domain, has been allowed to fester dealing a body blow to the prestige of an army which has scrupulously kept to the barracks in what is a major achievement for a developing country.
 
For a military hampered by a tardy modernisation programme and involved in raising new battalions, the controversy over the general's age could not have come at a worse time, particularly keeping in view that the crucial line of succession threatens to be disturbed and in most evolved democracies, is seen as a sign of trouble.
 
If 1950 is accepted as the date of birth of Gen. VK Singh then Lt Gen. Bikram Singh will follow as the incumbent to be followed by Lt Gen. Dalbir Singh. But if the age of current chief is fixed at 1951, then Lt Gen. K.T. Parnaik will succeed him to be followed, most likely, by Lt Gen. Anand Singh.
 
Sources admit there is no set chain of succession. Every army chief is selected by the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) from a panel of seven army commanders and the vice-chief of army staff.
 
Even though the decision is political, successive governments have – minus two exceptions – stuck to the seniority principle to anoint a new military chief.
 
Avoidable as the public dispute that it has become, military officials admit some problems are in built. When Gen. Singh took over as the chief, the army was embroiled in a series of unseemly controversies, most civilian in nature, like the Sukhna land scam, a ration scam and sexual harassment of lady officers.
 
While Singh's no-nonsense military approach was seen as a positive arrival, the age controversy has underlined a larger malaise which needs to be dealt with pronto.
Its most common failings are typically Indian, the most important of them being discarding merit as the criteria of choosing leadership.
 
Former deputy chief of army, Lt. Gen. Raj Kadyan stresses that the army’s systems are fair and well laid but questions the way things have developed in this case. “You cannot decide upon a man and then fix his date of retirement,'' he stresses.
 
Kadyan accepts that today’s army is not what it was 40 years ago but then the "army too reflects today’s societal values which is inevitable.”
 
While Gen. Singh is well regarded for his military acumen and professionalism, his unprecedented step of moving the apex court has put the focus on a larger problem.
A serving general, who requests anonymity, lays the blame of the current ills on the pro-rata system of appointments. “We have applied Mandal Commission style of rules when it comes to promotion of senior officers. We call it pro-rata which guarantees each arm a fixed number of promotion vacancies. As these vacancies have to be filled as per rules, merit ceases to be the only criteria.''
 
Adds Maj Gen. (retd.) Nilendra Kumar, former judge advocate general who headed the legal branch of the army: "Officers posted in head quarters with the chiefs and senior generals are given undue advantage at the cost of meritorious officers. Unfortunately a few previous regimes have introduced certain short-sighted policies. A deeper study of a few former chiefs will reveal that officers who were posted in their staff and would otherwise have not made it to the higher ranks, got to the command level. This meant sacrificing meritorious officers because vacancies had to be filled and some mediocre officers got undeserved promotions.''
 
The pro-rata system was introduced in 2002 under the tenure of Gen. S Padmanabhan. It was carried on by succeeding COASs, N C Vij, J J Singh and Deepak Kapoor. Gen. VK Singh chose to emphasise its significance during his annual Army Day press conference on January 12 this year. Said Singh, "Pro-rata is a myth created by people who don’t understand the system. A bandwidth (of merit) has been laid down, and all those who are meritorious are taken care of (i.e. promoted). Show me a man who was meritorious, but was not promoted.”
Lt Gen. Kadyan agrees. “One cannot compare the kind of conditions most infantry officers work in and then they are made to appear for various exams without anything to read or consult.”
 
On its part, the ministry of defence (MoD) has added to the army's troubles. Recently, the board for promoting major generals to lieutenant generals and brigadiers to major generals were held-up for more than six months.
 
This led to the army losing five eligible and capable officers as their superannuation date fell during these six months. In contrast, the same boards for the navy and air force met their deadlines.
 
The key question is this: has the time for India’s own Blue Ribbon Commission on the lines of US or Royal Commission as in UK, come? In the US, Blue Ribbon commissions look into problems of the forces. In the UK, Royal Commissions go into issues faced by armed forces from time to time and suggest remedies. These have to lead to an overhaul of the system which in India is yet to be ‘integrated’.
 
At a time when India is making inspired efforts to be counted as a regional power, not to mention a global one, controversies such as these are hardly conducive to play out such decisive roles.

Chequered history 
 
The civilian-military confrontation in India has a long, though somewhat muted history. On August 31, 1959 highly decorated Gen. KS Thimayya quit because of the insults heaped on him by then defence minister Krishna Menon and because an undeserving but government favourite, Lt Gen. BM Kaul, was promoted. It was a mark of protest against interfering with the army. Later the country had to bear the cost of weak leadership of its generals during the 1962 India-China war.
 
Others have used quieter modes to exit. Lt Gen. S.K. Sinha, when overlooked for promotion as chief, resigned in 1983, apparently because he did not support Operation Bluestar. The Indira Gandhi government superseded him by Gen. A. S. Vaidya. Says Admiral Vishnu Bhagat, removed by the NDA government in 1998, "Over a period of time, the MoD has developed vested interest and linkages with officers who are or may be in consideration or may be affected. This kind of patronage which comes in becomes the basis for influence and control in other areas as well, which is demoralising for clean upright officers.'' He should know.
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Issue Dated: Feb 5, 2017