Tuesday, 20 December 2016


Saluting Bipin Rawat but with a caveat

The recent announcement at long last of the name of the new army chief provides merely an entry point for discussing the fallacy of operational experience as a pointer to either tactical sense or strategic judgment. The army chief designate has a formidable military reputation and matching record. There is no begrudging his elevation to the august appointment. There may however be issues over the supersession of two equally competent generals.
That the BJP government slept over making the appointment for almost a month and half is suggestive of the politics that inevitably attend the discussions. The BJP would like to be sure it has a candidate that would either be complicit or silent, the latter being preferred since it would be in keeping with the apolitical ethos of the army. The former attitude in a chief would be rather obvious and would compromise him and the service, whereas the latter can be rationalized as a sign of professionalism.
Silence of course does not imply pliable, but an attitude that is wary of politicization of the service and therefore one that keeps the military to the straight and narrow. The ruling party, that is the political face of a larger national reorientation project, needs to be sure that a future chief would be of this kind. By that yardstick, all three candidates would have met the bill. Neither has Bipin Rawat done or said anything that endears him to the ruling party, nor have the other two – Praveen Bakshi and Hariz - disqualified themselves by doing or saying anything that the ruling dispensation could take amiss.
Therefore it bears speculation as to why the supersession. It is easy to neglect Hariz’s claims to the post since he was the second in line of seniority. There was nothing in him that could make him pip Bakshi at the post. So the face-off is between Bakshi and Rawat. The possibility that Bakshi’s claims to a top job have not been altogether neglected is evident from rumours that he might make it to being India’s first permanent chairman chiefs of staff committee.
Currently, it is an appointment that goes to the senior-most serving chief, a thoroughly inadequate arrangement given the increased need for a single-point military adviser to the government, jointness and to oversee the nuclear deterrent. Should Bakshi get the slot it would only be befitting and the twin appointments would amount to a successful ‘surgical strike’ by the government.
In the fitness of things, if the rumours are proved right, the surgical strike would have been better executed in case news of the two appointments had been released together. This indicates current potential for yet another hit-wicket for the government in case it forces Bakshi to turn in his papers, quite like Lt Gen SK Sinha did three decades back. It appears yet another self-goal by this government is in the offing.   
Be that as it may, one aspect needs interrogation. If Bakshi was ruled out for the army top job if only for being lined up for an equally significant one soon as India’s chief of defence staff equivalent, then Hariz resurfaces as a candidate. Over looking his claim for the top job requires explanation. The easy explanation is to see it in his name. As the first muslim in quarter century to make it to army commander level, he has already accomplished much. Elevating him, alongside Bakshi, would have been least controversial. Thus, the possibility of the government being unable to swallow the fact of the religion he was born into  cannot be easily wished away, in light of the prime minister’s well known ad often ventilated levels of regard for India’s  largest minority. The ruling party did not even think it fit to have a muslim name, if only for its propaganda value for it to debunk allegations that it views muslims somewhat warily. The BJP election victory had one emphatic lesson for it and democratic India: that it can afford to ignore the minority owing to its successful consolidation of the majority through majoritarian and cultural nationalist gimmicks. That said, it would be tad too easy to ascribe Hariz being overlooked to his religion, though the case itself cannot in light of Hariz’s supersession ever be ruled out.
Media speculation has it that Rawat had operational experience behind him to a degree that the other two did not. This owed in large part to Rawat being an infanteer and the other two from the mechanized forces, Bakshi being a cavalier and Hariz a mechnised infantryman. The start of their military journeys naturally made them gravitate to areas of deployment and expertise of their parent arm. Eventually, as they neared the last goal post, the goal posts were shifted for the two from the mechanized forces. This is not a new issue in the army. It has been controversial for at least a decade and a half now. This time round the situation has been shown up too glaringly on the radar to sweep under the carpet as the army has continued to do over the duration.
It is no secret by now that the infantry and artillery have under successive chiefs from these two arms appropriated the upper ranks of the army for those belonging to these arms. This has been under the pro-rata system, called by its critics as mandalisation of the army. The two arms having a large proportion of the army have a correspondingly large cadre of officers. They have so arranged the promotion system that the proportion of higher rank officers is proportional to the numbers signing into the arm at entry. This makes for an uneven playfield for the other arms such as the mechanized forces. It also has impacted the services, reducing their vacancies in higher ranks disproportionately. This has led to considerable heartburn in other arms and services and several court cases. The overlooking of the claim of at least one form the mechanized lobby for the highest rank is just one more nail being driven in. In this case, an unwary government could well be carrying the can for the army’s inappropriate career progression policies.
The assumption is that the infantry and artillery officers are exposed to an operational environment on account of their postings in hardship and operational locations either on the line of control, high altitude or counter insurgency situations. It is not explained how this experience conditions them better into being better higher commanders. If hardship is a criterion, then they should certainly be compensated perhaps by higher allowances.
But to reserve higher slots for them rules out more credible candidates from arms that cannot serve in such environments on account of their expertise being restricted to mechanized warfare that can only be undertaken in the deserts and plains. They cannot be penalized for their success in deterring conventional war to the extent that Pakistan is restricted to keeping the pot boiling in Kashmir. They should not be made to pay for their success which inadvertently only serves the infantry and gunner lobby. The infantry and artillery cannot be allowed to ticket punch their way through India’s troubled lands under cover of AFSPA. It would amount to having these arms, and the army, gain a stake in the troubled conditions, with the ‘disturbed areas’ serving as training grounds for officers to gain operational experience.
This scrutiny would be entirely incomplete without drawing blood. It needs being said out and loud that far too many officers have gained their next rank using ‘operational’ experience as their card. Not a few of them can reasonably be charged with war crimes for egregious rounds of violence that have been visited on the people in their areas of operational responsibility.
The troubled period of the nineties in Kashmir is a case to point. There was a bean count syndrome for a proportion of the time. There was not only inadequate operational level attention but such officers might have even detected a permissive atmosphere to further careers on the back of broken lives. This has not gone away yet.  The killing of Burhan Wani’s brother in unknown circumstances for his reportedly being an over ground worker is a case to point. Bluntly put, multiple tenures in counter insurgency mean nothing. How officers conduct themselves ethically and professionally while in it is everything.
And even then, great achievement at tactical level in counter insurgency – any command division and below is at that level – is no guarantee of strategic good sense, required in military brass at the apex level. The case of the current chief is a live example. His exemplary tenure as company commander in Operation Pavan did little to prepare him as chief. Pin a medal on their chest for such showing, but do not allow such showing to get them into war rooms where we rue their over promotion. Else the likes of the national security adviser and his ilk will run rings round the service, such as through letting loose the NIA on military bases subject to terror attack.
The broader observation has nothing to do with Bipin Rawat. He has gained what he rightly deserved in the right way. It is about the media speculation on why he made it past two of his compatriots. Even if he was the more illustrious - and this can easily be proven - do his advantages justify supersession? Is the army over-relying on false indicators of strategic good sense? To take up his place in history, Bipin Rawat needs to roll back the policies that militate against competence and privilege mediocrity in the general cadre.