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What does merit-based promotion of 3-star officers in armed forces imply? Five military veterans weigh in

The proposed plan has led to some apprehensions and reservations in the higher echelons of the forces, a policy process, which until now, was considered purely an internal matter of the military.

August 31, 2021 / 04:51 PM IST
Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) General Bipin Rawat, Army chief General Manoj Mukund Narawane, Chief of the Air Staff Air Chief Marshal RKS Bhadauria and Navy chief Admiral Karambir Singh pay tribute at the National War Memorial on 72nd Indian Army Day in New Delhi. (Image: PTI)

Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) General Bipin Rawat, Army chief General Manoj Mukund Narawane, Chief of the Air Staff Air Chief Marshal RKS Bhadauria and Navy chief Admiral Karambir Singh pay tribute at the National War Memorial on 72nd Indian Army Day in New Delhi. (Image: PTI)

It is clear now. The Modi government’s proposed reforms in the defence sector are foraying into areas where no other Indian government has even attempted, in the last seven decades.

After the proposed sale of defence land, the latest salvo has come in the form of a new submission being studied for promotions to the higher ranks in the armed services.

The proposal is to put into place a “more progressive, common and merit-based” policy for promotion of officers to three-star ranks - Lt-Generals in the Army, Vice Admirals in the Navy and Air Marshals in the Air Force - and particularly for Commanders-in-Chief (Cs-in-C) of different commands.

According to well-placed sources, the proposal has the blessings of the Department of Military Affairs (DMA), headed by General Bipin Rawat, whose own appointment as the Chief of the Army Staff (COAS), superseding two colleagues, and later, on eve of his retirement, as the Chief of Defence Staff (CDS), was driven by merit as assessed by the Appointments Committee of the Cabinet (ACC).

While so far, successive governments have restricted themselves to the selection of service chiefs, the new project plans to dig deeper: it may, in effect, be involved in the appointment of senior commanders of the three services.


Naturally, it has led to some apprehensions and reservations in the higher echelons of the forces, a policy process, which until now, was considered purely an internal matter of the military.

According to some reports, a committee of Vice-Chiefs of the three services may be formed to lay down suitable criteria for merit-based promotions.

The subject has received special focus in the light of the ongoing theaterisation process in the defence services. The existing 17 single service commands are being merged into three tri-service commands, each under a single commander.

The proposed policy would stress on merit rather than on seniority for promotions to these positions and possibly for the levels from which these promotions are made.

Experts say that the armed forces have an established promotion policy which is based on merit, seniority in terms of date of birth and commissioning date and residual seniority.

The criteria have some variations for different services, but the thrust is on a combination of merit and service. Therein lies the catch. Every officer at the three-star level has achieved that distinction after rigorous assessment of merit at many levels. There are only a very few who climb those heights and it will be difficult to `select again’, based on merit.

This is especially because such an assessment, despite the objectivity quotient, can easily turn subjective.

To be sure, choosing a Chief of Army Staff has proved to be controversial two times in the past. The first was the selection of General KS Thimayya in 1957. The second was that of General A.S. Vaidya by the Indira Gandhi government. The first choice was merit-driven and proved to be astute, while in the second, the use of the army against the Golden Temple in Amritsar, had a series of disastrous consequences.

This current proposal, however, is materially different. Moneycontrol talked to five top military commanders to know their views on a subject that has vertically split the higher ranks of defence forces.

Lt Gen (Retd) Rakesh Sharma, Former Adjutant General, Distinguished Fellow CLAWS  

For topmost commanders, selection must be based on criteria that go well beyond seniority

There is an emerging geo-strategic environment that is truly challenging. Jointness is the buzzword and there is push towards theaterisation. The three service chiefs have to readjust to the oncoming realities of modern warfare and create newer promotional systems and human resource policies. It is imperative that for topmost commanders, selection must be based on criteria that go well beyond seniority.

Inexplicably, the issue of seniority or merit comes to the fore when a service chief is about to superannuate, giving rise to jostling and politicisation. Invariably radical changes in the promotion policy to select service chiefs and Commander-in-Chiefs in the Army, Air Force and Navy on merit is hinted at. That gives the incorrect impression that the current selection is totally based on seniority and merit is overlooked. In fact, the government has lately exercised its prerogative, and this is likely to be extended to Cs-in-C.

Three issues merit consideration. First, the fact is that inter seniority is fixed at the time of commission and never re-fixed in the service career so its relevance over 35 odd years is questionable. Unlike the civil services, when an entire batch of near-equivalent seniority gets considered for promotion, in the armed forces only about one thirds get promoted at each successive rank after Lt Colonel and equivalent. In other words, merit is the basis for all promotions in the armed forces.

Second, there is also a need to consider if there is any major difference in merit at the Cs-in-C and Chief level to facilitate the government to pick and choose among the panel of the same seniority. In service careers, though there are promotions on merit, due to varied reasons, the growth-in-service remains largely flawed, with limited broad-based experience. Case in point is excessive exposure for many in command and staff assignments to operational sectors of Jammu and Kashmir or North East, as against broad-based experience in the plains, deserts, amphibious or joint operations. This provides for lopsided growth. It must be said that merit by itself is subjective and quantified merit based on Confidential Reports is fraught with infirmities. Hence, the system of working out merit and calibre requires serious in-house contemplation.

Third, is the oft-repeated charge that selection by merit at the apex level – so-called `deep selection’ - will lead to politicisation. I believe that the accusation of politicisation is being carried too far. In the armed forces, unlike the civil services, political interaction is severely limited. Political interaction in the career of officers is frowned upon and duly recorded.

Lt Gen HS Panag (Retd), Former GOC in C, Northern Command and Central Command. 

Challenge is to evolve a fail-safe system to select the meritorious

The CDS must be lauded for his initiative to bring merit to the fore in the armed forces. His challenge will be to evolve a fail-safe and transparent system to select the meritorious.

The debate about merit-versus-seniority in promotions, particularly with respect to promotions to the top four rungs — Lt Gens and equivalents, C-in-Cs, Service Chiefs and the CDS — has been reignited.

There is always a first among equals. The challenge is to have a system to find the meritorious ‘first’. Due to the lack of a foolproof system of selection and promotions, the principle of merit-cum-seniority has taken root. In my view, seniority does impinge on merit and there is a need for reform.

Let there be no doubt that even in the prevailing system, all promotions for the ranks of Colonel and equivalent up to C-in-C are based on merit derived from a three-tier appraisal process. Seniority comes into play for the actual assumption of appointment. The selection of service chiefs and the CDS is done by the government at its discretion. The principle of seniority has generally been adhered to. However, at times, the government has also relied upon ‘merit’, beginning with the appointment of General K.S. Thimayya in 1957, who superseded two colleagues.

Any appraisal system is contingent upon the prevailing standards of character and ethics. The armed forces have become flawed due to lack of objectivity, the prevalence of regimental and arm parochialism, and weakness in the character of the assessing officers. The fallout has been inflation of reports due to lack of moral courage of the assessors leading to a deluge of meritorious officers. The casualty is genuine merit.

Below par leadership and character of the entire office corps has a big role to play here. Criteria and competencies for various command and staff appointments are not clearly defined. This also brings about subjectivity in the appraisal system.

Over a period, the promotion of prodigies, arm and regimental officers by senior officers in the armed forces, including C-in-Cs and service chiefs have also played a dubious role. They manipulate postings and appointments of the favoured ones, influencing the ‘merit dossier’ for future promotions.

Seniority among peers is derived from the order of merit at the time of graduation from the military academies. For a merit-based system to prevail, the Army must first bring reforms to arrest the drop in character and ethics of the officer corps, particularly of the hierarchy. The objectivity of the appraisal system is dependent on the character and ethics of the assessor.

There is also a need to review and refine the criteria and competencies required for all command and staff appointments, particularly with respect to higher ranks.

The concept of seniority based on merit at the time of commissioning needs to be reviewed. The way forward is to reassess the merit at the time of selection to the rank of Brigadier/Major General and equivalent, upwards to decide seniority among peers.

Lt Gen (retd) Dr Prakash Menon, Director, Strategic Studies Programme, Takshashila Institution, former Military Adviser, National Security Council Secretariat

Indian political class has tasted blood by leveraging the military for partisan politics

The current debate is in the context of the Narendra Modi government exercising its political judgement to select Army, Navy and Air Force Chiefs by disregarding seniority. It is framed as a binary choice between merit and seniority.

The prime argument asserted to privilege seniority over merit has hinged on the necessity to maintain the armed forces as an apolitical institution, a contention that rests on the notion that it would otherwise open the possibility of political favouritism, with military leaders attempting to cosy up to politicians, thus politicising the military as an institution. This is true and a perennial danger in a democracy.

The ultimate power to select the senior armed forces leadership must be left to politicians. It can be misused like any other power wielded by them. In a democracy, the main check is the electoral power of the populace as also the legal safeguards provided by the Constitution. This is reflected in the long-standing selection system for chiefs and army commanders or their equivalents. The final selection has always been done from a panel based on seniority and eligibility criteria.

A case can be made that India’s electoral system must be reformed to improve the overall quality of India’s politicians. An analysis of criminal, financial, and other backgrounds of the Union Council of Ministers post the Cabinet expansion on 7 July 2021 by the Association for Democratic Reforms, is indicative of the need to improve the quality of India’s political leadership. But we all know that the current electoral system of the first-past-the-post needs to be changed to move away from the reality that most elected leaders represent only a minority of their respective constituencies. But change is unlikely unless it comes through the legal route.

Let it be clear that the military will have to learn to cope with what might be considered as the unethical predations of India’s political leadership. It is simply the baggage that the Indian military must prepare itself to endure. It is a reality that cannot be wished away.

The Indian political class has tasted blood by leveraging the military for partisan politics. The mobilisation of the already stretched resources of the armed forces to demonstrate solidarity for frontline medical workers in 2020 is one example among several others, including the appearance of posters of the military after India’s military strikes post-Uri attack. The projection of the Prime Minister as the originator of the idea of flying beneath the clouds for the Balakot strike to achieve operational effectiveness may have convinced some admiring followers but was laughable to those in the know of things.

India’s quality of military leadership is already under test, and with the current trajectory of geopolitical tensions coupled with fractious domestic politics, its challenges may grow exponentially. In the context of selecting senior military leadership, politicians could plausibly be on a quest for minions. Only the military’s moral fibre can give it a fighting chance to overcome such deviant exertions.

Lt Gen Karan Singh Yadav (Retd)

The new system must be thoroughly debated within army circles before its introduction   

There can be no doubt that the man occupying the top position must be the best. The crucial point, however, is who will select him? Is it going to be from the military or outside? No one can say for sure.

We have a system of selection of senior commanders in place, which despite many flaws has worked. It has stood the test of time. I don’t see any reason why opaque changes like this proposal need to be introduced. If they have to be introduced, it should be done with proper debate within army and defence circles.

Sure, it is nobody’s case that the system does not need improvement. It does and needs to be highlighted. But to throw out the existing system, which has done well enough so far, and replace it with something about which no details are available, is extremely dangerous.

The army and defence system are highly merit-based in any case. Unlike the civilian system, more than 50 percent of the people get eliminated during the selection process as they go up the ladder. So, what is the merit that this government is seeking to initiate?

Sure, the government has the final say in military appointments, but in the system, such as it works now, all disagreements and elimination are recorded on file. We don’t even know who will preside over the selections in the higher command. The CDS should announce it and come out in the open.

Brig Rajiv Williams (Retd), veteran infantryman, participant in the capture of Bana post in 1987, clearing a significant Pakistani intrusion on Siachen’s highest peak

Seniority vs Merit debate will affect the morale in the Indian army

The Military Secretary branch in the Integrated Headquarters has been responsible for all postings and promotions of officers of the Indian Army since the organisation structure was created. The Army policy on promotions crafted internally has been approved by the Ministry of Defence. There have been seminal changes in the policy based on various factors pertaining to officers’ profiles and postings, as also their achievements in war and peace. The courses and awards have also been factored into the promotion policy and is dynamic keeping in mind the nature of warfare and the call of duty.

Since these aspects have been well considered in the promotion policy, there is an inherent credit line already built into the system and hence the piece on ‘Merit’ is part of the promotion prospects of each affected officer.

It must also be appreciated that merit right from the time of commissioning has already given an edge to an officer graduating from the Indian Military Academy as also from other training academies/schools of the three services. Hence the young officer passing out first in the order of merit at the start of his career already has the advantage of remaining senior to his other batch mates all through his service, provided he gets his promotion in time.

There is the aspect of ethics and mutual respect amongst all officers and men and that does have a lot to do with the allocation of Indian Commission (IC) numbers.

There are batches grouped together when being considered for promotions beyond the rank of Lt. Col. and the approved officers are given promotion as per their IC numbers – They are all considered worthy of the rank promoted and in effect are equals in their turn.

For the government to consider that there is a scope for change in the promotion policy based on merits amongst different batches, with the junior batch officer being promoted before his senior, when being approved together seems skewed for various reasons.

That should be a bottom line of all considerations – being approved in the same promotion board means that the senior will pick up the rank before his junior unless there are grievous disciplinary issues.

Hence it seems most irrational to consider Merit over Seniority, at least till the rank of an army commander. In any case, the appointment and promotion of the highest office does have a political colour attached and even in that category in most cases, the seniority card has been well respected, and promotions made.

The system under debate of giving credibility to Merit over Seniority will certainly affect morale of the army, which is not good for the overall security of the country and that is what each officer is supposed to carry out with all his being and might.
Ranjit Bhushan is an independent journalist and former Nehru Fellow at Jamia Millia University. In a career spanning more than three decades, he has worked with Outlook, The Times of India, The Indian Express, the Press Trust of India, Associated Press, Financial Chronicle, and DNA.
first published: Aug 31, 2021 03:44 pm
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