Commanders-in-chief and Service Chiefs: Proposed changes in selection method not flawless

August 30, 2021 1:09 PM

The race for the top posts has always been tough; with the reduction in the number of available posts and the impending adoption of the ‘deep selection method’, it is set to become tougher for the aspirants.

rajnath singhIt is not known as to who will select the officers for the top posts -whether it will be the armed forces themselves or a board that includes civilians and the defence minister. (Photo source: PTI)

By Amit Cowshish, 

As reported by the Times of India on August 9, the Government of India is considering a far-reaching change -not necessarily for the better- in the way the three-star commanders-in-chief and the four-star service chiefs are selected in future.

Presently, the armed forces are structured around fourteen commands. This number would go down, most probably to five, once the existing commands metamorphose into integrated theatre commands. The race for the top posts has always been tough; with the reduction in the number of available posts and the impending adoption of the ‘deep selection method’, it is set to become tougher for the aspirants. Deep selection implies picking up of a suitable officer -not necessarily the senior-most- from a panel of suitable candidates for the identified posts.

It is no secret that a miniscule number of the officers of a particular batch reach the three-star rank due to pyramidical structure of the armed forces. Of these, not even one per cent can expect to be accommodated in the posts for which the selection method is proposed to be changed from what can best be described as seniority-cum-merit to merit-cum-seniority.

Unsurprisingly, the opinions are divided on the desirability of the proposed deep selection method -it is not unknown at this stage how deep the selectors may go- with more analysts questioning the wisdom of tweaking the present system than those who are in its favour. The opponents of the move argue that even in the present system merit plays an important role in selection of officers for promotion, especially at the higher levels where the pyramid starts peaking sharply.

Since the present system has, by and large, stood the test of time, it is indeed unclear what has prompted the government to consider tweaking of the existing selection method and what additional yardsticks can be adopted to measure comparative merits of three-star officers and identify the most meritorious ones for promotion as commanders-in-chief and service chiefs.

It is axiomatic that there is not much in terms of professional capability, or potential, that distinguishes one officer from the other at the three-star level, where one takes an average of 35 years to reach after being assessed meritorious enough to be elevated by the promotion boards at several levels. Surely, the government is aware of it. This begs the question as to what basic shortcoming in the present system is sought to be rectified by changing the selection process.

One possible explanation is that even if all three-star officers are equally professionally capable, in terms of their experience some officers are more endowed than the rest and, therefore, better suited for the posts in question. It is. Therefore, necessary to discover such officers for taking up the top operational assignments. There is some merit in this view, though it also reflects poorly on the training and career development systems followed by the services.

It is no brainer that the deep selection method would result in greater jostling among the three-star officers to acquire the requisite experience. This, in turn, would imply shorter tenures for the officers in staff and command posts, or in other assignments which are considered important for gaining the requisite experience. Of course, this presumes that the government will be able to specify the nature of experience required for promotion and provide equal opportunity to all three-star officers to acquire that experience. This task seems daunting, if not impossible.

Consequently, the proposed system will put paid to the rightful aspirations of the officers who are in line for promotion to the coveted posts but not considered meritorious enough to be selected. The superseded officers generally accept their fate gracefully but their feeling of hurt, even humiliation, cannot be assuaged by sweet talk or by proclaiming that while their merit is undeniable, someone junior to them has been found by the selectors to be more meritorious on account of the richness of the latter’s experience.

At any rate, if experience is to be the determining factor in selection, the deep selection method should be christened ‘experience-cum-merit’ method to make it easier for the overlooked officers to come to terms with their supersession. While the adverse impact of the deep selection method on the affected military officers can thus be mitigated to some extent, the impact it may have on the armed forces as an institution will remain a matter of concern.

It is not known as to who will select the officers for the top posts -whether it will be the armed forces themselves or a board that includes civilians and the defence minister. Whatever be the composition of the selection board, the selection process cannot be completely insulated from political influence as appointment of the selected officers will have to be ultimately endorsed by the Appointments Committee of the Cabinet (ACC), composed of the prime minister, who is also its chairman, and the minister of home affairs.

The opponents of the move also fear that the officers selected through the deep selection method will be beholden to the selectors, including the political establishment, and that it could affect their professional conduct. The advocates of the proposed change, however, do not agree. For them, this apprehension is misplaced because, as they argue, the service officers do not come in much contact with the politicians and the institutional ethos brooks no political interference.

This stand is disingenuous. For one thing, it is not correct that there is not much interaction between the top military brass and the politicians, and for another, political influence is not necessarily exerted through direct interaction. Empirically too, personal prejudices and biases of the selectors do play a role in such situations.

The deep selection system would undoubtedly leave a window open for hobnobbing between the aspirants for the top jobs and the politicians -directly or through the bureaucracy- to secure elevation to the coveted posts, and for those who succeed in this endeavour, to return the favour by kowtowing to political nudging in operational matters. This may not become a regular phenomenon, but the possibility cannot be ruled out. It cannot do any good to the armed forces as an institution. Even for the government, the advantage of adopting the deep selection method remain nebulous, at best. As they say, don’t fix it, if it ain’t broke.

(The author is former Financial Advisor (Acquisition), Ministry of Defence. Views expressed are personal and do not reflect the official position or policy of Financial Express Online.)

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