The Indian Army stands at a crossroads of reasoning today. The decision regarding the appointment of Army Vice-Chief Lieutenant General Bipin Rawat as the next Army chief has spurred a debate about the virtues of merit versus seniority. These criteria seem incompatible with each other, but are not.

There is a story about Subhas Chandra Bose, the leader of the Indian National Army during the freedom struggle. They say that when he wrote the equivalent of the civil services exam, the paper had 10 questions with instructions to answer any five. Legend goes that he wrote the answers to all 10 questions and told the examiner to check any five. He came sixth on the merit list.

The Indian Army is divided into six operational commands and one training command. Simply put, India has six Armies under an Army commander each, with the seventh being a training command that has an equally, if not more, important task of training the entire Indian Army. Like Subhas Chandra Bose’s answer sheet, any one of our seven commanders is more than competent to lead the largest volunteer Army of the world.

Unlike conscripted troops, volunteer armies are bedrocked on value-based leadership, rituals and traditions to inspire their troops – not punishment for dodging the draft. One of those values is the principle of hierarchy, embodied by seniority.

The sector debate

In not just the Indian Army but across the armies of the world, this basic element of seniority is what enables a massive machinery to function with military precision. While there is a definite case for merit to play an important part, the truth is that merit is already factored into the elaborate and complex distillation process that yields us seven Army commanders from thousands of officers every few years. The very rank of general embodies the competence of the officer manning that post, to discharge operations regardless of their nature, terrain or theatres. If that wasn’t true, it would belie the entire process of transfers, cross attachments, hybrid command formations, integrated operations, joint training, switching between staff and operational commands – which is the foundation of any army. As a matter of fact, any rank upward of a brigadier is a general rank and the Indian Army further super-specialises generals into command and staff – the former helming formations and the latter supporting them.

All the seven Indian Army commanders are generals who have been adjudged to be fully competent of commanding an army, regardless of its operational requirement. If that logic wasn’t true, then how could generals from the artillery or cavalry go on to become chiefs of a largely infantry-predominant army?

Secondly, the logic of deep diving to select an army chief for his experience in the northern theatre is, at the most, operationally valid. But the chief of the Indian Army is supposed to manoeuvre in the strategic orbit – not in the operational.

Take the example of the 1965 India-Pakistan war. While Pakistan invaded the Northern Command with purely infantry-based insurgency operations, the decisive victory of the war was the armoured bloodbath that routed the Pakistani armour at Asal Uttar in the Western Command. This is what broke their back and established Indian supremacy over Pakistani armoured formations for decades to come.

While the operational commander of Asal Uttar was the legendary cavalry officer (later) Lieutenant General Hanut Singh, the general commanding the division was an equally glorious Lieutenant General Harbaksh Singh from infantry, working in synergy with a chief from the cavalry. Anecdotally, one of the heroes of this battle was an infantryman – Param Vir Charkra winner Abdul Hamid, who knocked out seven enemy tanks. Ironically, Pervez Musharraf, who was an artillery lieutenant in that battle, went on to become the Pakistani Army chief.

Similarly, our decisive victory in 1971 came from the Eastern Army commander and not the West, which was considered the main front since the 1965 war. Or for that matter, all three of our current strike corps commanders – who lead the cutting edge of predominantly mechanised forces – are infantry officers.

Simply put, a sector-inexperienced army commander is an oxymoron and by extension, that is true of whoever is selected as chief.

This logic is easier appreciated by drawing a parallel to the experience of a minister to head any portfolio. By that logic, shouldn’t it be a former soldier (and a former Army chief to boot) who should be the defence minister rather than a former civilian engineer?

Similarly, how could successive governments appoint bureaucrats with less than 15% of their entire service in the defence ministry as defence secretaries? Who, as per the rules of business, are the custodians of India’s defence and not the defence chiefs.

Futile exercise

The government of the day has exercised its constitutional prerogative and professional judgement in appointing General Bipin Rawat as the Army chief designate. The rule of first among equals applies to him as well. And the Indian Army must remember that while there may be arguments regarding the supersession of two senior officers, if the sacred rule of seniority were indeed to be applied in spirit, then constitutionally the government is that senior and superior body whose decision has to be executed in letter and spirit. As indeed has been the tradition of the Indian armed forces.

The die is cast. General Bipin Rawat takes over at a time when the Indian Army is facing several operational, organisational and environmental challenges. His hands need to be strengthened, in the interest of our armed forces and indeed the nation, rather than weakened by contrarian views that serve little purpose. Officers, serving and retired, political commentators and analysts must factor the deleterious effect that further discourse on this fait accompli issue will have on our troops and junior leaders.

After all, the following credo of the British Army officer Field Marshal Philip Chetwode is supposed to be the conscience keeper for officers, commanders and leaders:

“The safety, honour and welfare of your country come first, always and every time. The honour, welfare and comfort of the men you command come next. Your own ease, comfort and safety come last, always and every time.”

The author is a former army officer. His Twitter handle is @captraman.