BY SHAILESH RANADE
The appointment of Lt Gen Dalbir Singh Suhaag as the COAS (Desig) by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh three days before leaving 7, Race Course Road is Sonia Gandhi’s way of telling Narendra Modi to “get lost”. Sanjaya Baru has confirmed what Indians had dreaded all along – Manmohan Singh was PM only in title.
The current COAS has another 11 weeks to retire and that the country is not at war is another matter altogether. Given Manmohan’s track record in security matters, it would take him many days to even react if India were invaded.
Some myths regarding the selection of Military Chiefs need to be exploded right away.
MYTH ONE: Is there is succession plan? Yes there is. It is often decided by Chiefs when Officers are coming up for promotion to the Major General/Rear Admiral/Air Vice Marshal level. If the Chief of the Day doesn’t like an Officer’s face, he will definitely miss the first attempt to Flag Rank. Gen Bikram Singh is not the topper of his Course? What happened to the topper? If the concerned Officer has somehow got through the Promotion Board and made it to the 2 star level, he can easily be tripped at the Fleet/Corps Commander Level. Remember the case of Rear Admiral Vishnu Bhagwat. This Admiral was overlooked for Fleet Commander by the scheming CNS at that time, Admiral JG Nadkarni. A succession plan is subjective and made only to further personal rather than national interests.
MYTH TWO: Does seniority matter? No, it does not. The government has to choose from the top half a dozen three star level Officers. These Officers are generally senior or junior by a few months, sometimes by a few days. It is not that a great coup is taking place if supersession does occur. A lot was written by vested interests on the recent promotion of Admiral RK Dhowan. The fact is he was only one course junior (6 months) to Vice Admiral Shekhar Sinha and was a topper throughout. Officers are getting written off at all levels. Some unfortunate ones even get caught between battles of two Senior Officers, much like the grass between two fighting elephants.
MYTH THREE: Does professionalism or merit matter? Yes, it does at all levels. The Services have a very stringent selection system. Apart from the odd aberration, an Officer takes about 33 years and 8 promotions to make it to a three star level. Since the pyramid incline now starts after Lt Col rank, promotions depend upon vacancies available. This means that to be assured of the next rank, an Officer has to be at the top or very near to the top. Therefore, it can be surmised that Officers at the 3 star levels are all professional and competent. The government may however take their performance at that level into account. Vice Admiral Shekhar Sinha’s “Command” performance was dismal and therefore he was rightly superseded. He may have been a great fighter pilot but turned out to be a poor leader. Sometimes luck also plays a part. The current CNS was actually recommended to head the Western Naval Command (WNC) in place of Vice Admiral Sinha.
MYTH FOUR: Is the Chief a political appointment? Yes it is. There have been enough cases where the PM or the Defence Minister have intervened and got the “Boy” of their choice. Such cases include Gen AS Vaidya, ACM OP Mehra, Admiral Sushil Kumar etc. In fact, Admiral Sushil Kumar had not even commanded a front line warship as a Captain. One trick used by the politicians is to grant extensions so that the “Chain” is not broken. Beneficiaries include Gen GG Bewoor, Admiral JG Nadkarni etc. Vice Admiral S Jain too was given an extension but was unfortunately grounded by his own Chief of Staff. To put it simply, if the politicians did not matter, senior military Officers would not be courting them. Unfortunately, one factor has been overlooked in the recent military discussion on promotions.
MYTH FIVE: Does integrity matter? Yes it does. The Adarsh Scam was an eye opener. It was unimaginable that dozens of military crooks could be found in an area half the size of a football field. It was again incredulous that those identified included 3 Service Chiefs and numerous three star level C-in- Cs. Soon thereafter, was the Tatra Scam followed by another AgustaWestland Scam. While the Tatra Scam will probably be reopened and names revealed, two Air Chiefs have nearly got caught in the Agusta rotor wash. The CBI has a “look out notice” for one of them and the other has hurriedly been posted to distant Norway as ambassador, a position equivalent to an Air Vice Marshal. Nothing demeans a soldier and lowers his morale more than the thought of his Chief putting himself before his country. The soldier’s God has suddenly transformed into a lowly despicable and purchasable creature. What happened to the Chetwode Code? Will juniors blindly follow orders? Not anymore.
The Military Chief is a political appointment. The political leadership of the day should brush aside all arguments of seniority. Other than performance and integrity, emphasis should be on the Chief’s perspective plan for his force and hold him accountable. Commanders have been changed in the middle of a war. There can be no problems if it is done in peace. There was the curious case of AP Venkateswaran. One day he was Foreign Secretary. Next day he was not. Rajiv Gandhi’s words, “soon you will be talking to a new foreign secretary”, did not cause any ripples, much less shake the bureaucratic world.
A Nation’s Military Chief is an important appointment. It is through him that the last resort is deployed to defend the nation’s interest. It is too serious to be left to an outgoing government that has been booted out of office. Manmohan Singh has set a dangerous precedent by disregarding the advice of the incoming political leadership. Even the President who is the nominal head of the Services has not been above board. If the new Prime Minister feels that Lt Gen Dalbir Singh Suhaag is not the Chief who would fit into his vision and plans for the military, a pink slip would definitely be in order.
Much like the “Middle Watch Keeper” who has the Captain’s trust, the new Army Chief must have the trust and confidence of his Prime Minister. The Prime Minister must sleep well, though Narendra Modi is the kind who will ensure that this nation’s watch keepers will always remain awake.
(Shailesh Ranade is a Guest Blogger with the Canary Trap. The opinions expressed by the author and those providing comments are theirs alone, and do not reflect the opinions of Canary Trap or any employee thereof)