In promotion policies for the military, keep politics out - Hindustan Times
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In promotion policies for the military, keep politics out

ByC Uday Bhaskar
Aug 17, 2021 02:45 PM IST

Civilian oversight in military promotions is part of the current promotion template and has its utility in review and redress where required, for there have been aberrations. However, allowing “merit” to become a euphemism for a political endorsement could be a slippery slope

A recent news report regarding a proposed review of the selection criteria for promotion to the higher ranks of the Indian military (three-star) has elicited considerable attention and preliminary comment in the security community. While details of the review are yet to be formally announced, a muted unease is palpable that this could be the beginning of the gradual erosion of the current system, where each service — the Army, the Navy, and the Air Force — have evolved their own promotion policies for higher ranks leading to appointment as commander-in-chief (C-in-C).

Soldiers from the armed forces march during Independence Day celebrations at the Red Fort in New Delhi, India, on Sunday, August 15, 2021. (Representational image/AP) PREMIUM
Soldiers from the armed forces march during Independence Day celebrations at the Red Fort in New Delhi, India, on Sunday, August 15, 2021. (Representational image/AP)

The Indian armed forces have a steep pyramid-like structure for promotion to the higher ranks unlike the civil services. In the military, less than 5% of those who are commissioned in a year make it to three-star — while in the civilian cadres, almost 95% reach the top tier of pay and allowances with the introduction of the non-functional upgrade.

Thus, peer competition at each selection rank in the fauj is intense, and the professional competence of an officer is evaluated annually by way of the annual confidential report (ACR) that can make or mar careers. Hence, individual merit is the primary metric for promotion in each rank, and this determinant acquires greater salience as the gradient becomes steeper in the three-star aspiration.

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The practice that has been followed to date is that a combination of merit and vacancies are the deciding factors for promotion. This evaluation is done by promotion boards in each service, with the chief being the final authority. For appointment as C-in-C and service chief, a slate of potential candidates who meet all the criteria is prepared and sent to the defence ministry for final approval. The seniority principle applies only for elevation to four-star (service chief) and has been usually followed, though there have been departures — General AS Vaidya (1983) and General Bipin Rawat (2016) are cases in point.

The news report indicates that in the future, promotion to higher rank will be “primarily on merit rather than seniority”, and that the objective would be to evolve “a more progressive, common and merit-based” policy for promotions to three-star rank in general, and C-in-Cs in particular. This is intriguing, for current promotions are based on merit alone, and seniority is invoked only for the chiefs.

However, one presumes that with inter-service synergy and theatre commands on the anvil, there is a case for a review and evolving a common template among the armed forces apropos of promotion policies. Tenures in joint formations and units will have to be accorded due weight for promotion and this is a logical tweak of existing procedures.

The word “progressive” may connote the ability to discharge tri-service responsibilities. It would be fair to assume that such training of today’s one-star officers (brigadier and equivalent) is imperative as theatre commands become a reality in a phased manner.

Merit-based promotions taking into account professional competence and personal integrity are highly desirable in any organisation, and more so in the military. The current model for promotions to higher rank recognises merit as the primary determinant (hence, the centrality of the ACR).

But to prioritise “merit” again at the two-star to three-star level (major general to lieutenant general and equivalent in the other services) is incongruous and the trigger for the muted unease — about the objective of the review. However, until more details are made available in the public domain, it may be prudent to note the proposal and flag some major elements of the military hierarchy and the civil-military interface.

Hierarchy and seniority are sacred in the military and obeying orders is a deeply instilled characteristic of the uniformed fraternity. Senior officers have an enormous professional responsibility to discharge and, when in command, they are directly responsible for the lives of the personnel under their charge. This is unique to the military and gives the institution its distinctive ethos — the use of force — within the framework of the Constitution and the law, to safeguard national security interests.

Nurturing human resources within the military is a rigorous professional calling and each service has its inherited traditions and time-tested procedures. The results were evident in 1971 in the war for Bangladesh, and again in Kargil in 1999.

This success on the battlefield was preceded by the debacle of October 1962 against China — and the latter ensued due to unwarranted political interference in professional and operational matters that were in the Army domain. The Jawaharlal Nehru-VK Krishna Menon blunders resulted in an absurd exigency, where a three-star general from the service corps (ASC) was directing the battle in the North East Frontier Agency from a hospital in Delhi.

Civilian oversight in military promotions is part of the current promotion template and has its utility in review and redress where required, for there have been aberrations. However, allowing “merit” to become a euphemism for a political endorsement could be a slippery slope for the professional credibility and integrity of the military as an institution.

Espousing empathy with the ideology of the ruling party and behaving in an unctuous manner to curry favour with the political apex have become benchmarks for promotion in other institutions. This ought not to be the new template for the Indian fauj.

Commodore (retired) C Uday Bhaskar is director, Society for Policy Studies

The views expressed are personal

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